In Jasper Fforde’s charming alternate history The Eyre Affair, England in the 1980s is a place where hardcore literature fans change their name to John Milton, roving gangs of surrealists rumble with French impressionists, and “Baconians” go door-to-door like Jehovah Witnesses’ to convince people that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. For the English in Fforde’s world, art and literature attain the type of popularity comparable to American’s fascination with sports and celebrity.
After finishing the book I wondered why our world couldn’t be more like that. I wondered, “Wouldn’t we be better off if we took literature that seriously?” Then comes Bloomsday to confirm that the answer to my question is a resounding, “No.”
Today marks the 105th anniversary of Bloomsday, a commemoration of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses. For at least the past fifty years, fans of the notoriously difficult novel have gathered around the world in order to drink, dress up and celebrate their status as the literary equivalent of Trekkies.
Who are these people? And why is such a monstrously bad book still praised so highly? Perhaps it can be attributed to the career inferiority complexes of English majors. They may no make as much money as their friends who got their MBAs, they reason, but at least they can claim to have read The Greatest Novel Ever Written.
Even fans of the book, though, will admit that it is almost completely unreadable without outside help. When you have to read a book length companion guide in order to grasp the story, though, something has gone terribly askew. The only other comparable literary work that requires such scholarly aids for understanding is the Bible. But at least that was inspired by God. What was Joyce’s excuse for such pretentiousness?
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.
As Virginia Woolfe once said, “[Ulysses is] the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” Too true. Which makes it ever odder that academics esteem such a sophomoric novel, filled with insiderish attempts at humor. “The Irish,” noted The Weekly Standard contributor Stephen Schwartz on the 100th anniversary, “are inordinately fond of jokes and puns, especially if they are esoteric and thus known only to a few.” By this standard, Joyce’s book, which contains more obscure references than Dennis Miller’s cranium, can be classified as the greatest joke every played on English literature. “The paradox is that the book is a giant fart joke,” says Diana Wynne, producer of the documentary Joyce to the World. “There’s this huge vocabulary and complex technique, references to English literature and all kinds of obscure learning. But at the story level there’s a lot of low humor, base jokes, and a celebration of ordinary people.”
Ulysses, in other words, is the highbrow literary equivalent of an Adam Sandler movie.