Allow me to summarize the plot of a 644-page Modernist masterpiece, James Joyce’s Ulysses: Two guys meet one day.
The day in question is June 16, 1904 (Happy 111st anniversary!). The guys in question are Stephen Dedalus, twenty-two, poet; and Leopold Bloom, thirty-eight, ad canvasser. Stephen sneers occasionally, philosophizes often, liberally mocks his Church (Catholic) and country (Ireland), guiltily mourns his late mother, and hasn’t taken a shower in eight months—essentially, the portrait of Joyce as a young man. Bloom is the type to make his unfaithful wife breakfast in bed, talk to his cat, and with heavy heart remember his son, who died in childhood. Having wandered around Dublin separately throughout the day, the two finally meet at 11 p.m.
It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The novel’s famous Homeric parallel suggests as much. It figures Bloom as Odysseus and Stephen as his son Telemachus, and their encounter as no less epic than that ancient homecoming on the isle of Ithaca. Stephen needs someone to watch over him, Bloom needs a son’s hair to ruffle. Surely their meeting is the providential design of a benevolent author.
Or is it? The orthodox academic reading has it that Joyce, far from ennobling these two Dubliners, is mocking them—showing how far they are from resembling the epic hero and his princely son. The grandeur of the Homeric parallel underscores how tedious and small our daily experiences are.
On this reading, Joyce’s outlook on his characters, on all of human life, is corrosively ironic. Ulysses ironizes not only this day in the lives of Bloom and Stephen, but all the days in all the lives of all us ordinary folk in the twentieth century and following. Ours is an age from which we must banish all sentimental illusions about human significance.
So which reading is true? Is Joyce an ironist—or the opposite, a sentimentalist? Or is he something else?
* * *
The ironic reading has been influential in the world of letters, shaping our ideas of what a novel should be and do. The very act of writing Ulysses, that sacred text of Modernism, is seen as Joyce’s greatest ironic joke. Ulysses is extremely intricate, massively referential. On top of the Homeric parallel, it abounds in allusions to major and minor literary works, historical figures, and the sights and sounds of Joyce's Dublin. And for what? Joyce himself predicted, “It will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”—with an evil cackle and a twirl of his moustache.
So goes Joyce’s ironic formula for literary immortality. Readers shouldn’t bother consulting the Great Works for any truth they contain, nor engage with characters as people whose lives and experiences matter. All that matters is language, and the play of language. Stephen Whoever and Whatshisface Bloom are just puppets of Joyce’s virtuosic wordplay, which is to be deciphered for esoteric subversions and critiques.
To read Ulysses, then, is to embark on a code-breaking marathon, which requires a) two colleges degrees, b) a book of annotations, and c) an inordinate amount of patience. Ultimately, this means the novel belongs solely to academics. Worse, the disposition to ironize eradicates all genuine feeling, impoverishing the act of reading. If we are robbed of serious human characters, of the belief that our author faithfully represented human struggle, then what are we left with?
Writers of fiction are in an even stickier dilemma. If we aren’t in the business of telling meaningful stories, then what are we here for? Perhaps we should shoot for an ever more whimsical and esoteric style. In our postmodern and post-Ulysses age, the high praise slapped on book covers favors words like “cerebral” and (of course) “ironic.” Surface-level playfulness counts for much, sincerity for less. Irony cuts in two directions, causing showmanship or nihilism. In the worst case, it does both at once—ushering readers into a dark night of the soul while setting off fireworks.
And who started the trend but the author and creator of the modern mega-novel, Joyce himself?
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Or did he? To hail Joyce as the God of Irony, and Ulysses as the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the Western Canon, requires us to overlook his sentimental side. Let's not forget his humbling venture into verse. Here’s a sampling from Chamber Music, his book of love poems:
He who hath glory lost, nor hath
Found any soul to fellow his,
Among his foes in scorn and wrath
Holding to ancient nobleness,
That high unconsortable one
His love is his companion.
Chamber Music appeared in 1907, while Joyce was at work on Ulysses. Critics panned it, understandably. At that point Joyce began to insist that the title Chamber Music had been a pun, a reference to somebody tinkling in a chamber pot.
This is classic Joyce. The toilet humor, for one—but also the pattern of expressing genuine feeling and then ironizing it, for fear of appearing sentimental. Once it looked like people were attacking his display of feeling, Joyce recoiled, sneering, “I never was serious in the first place.” Most of his later readers have taken him at his word here, and indeed have read all of his work as un-serious in this way. Joyce is worshiped as the god of Ironic Deism—the novelist as aloof and enigmatic watchmaker.
In some ways, this is the whole story of literary Modernism. Embarrassed by their Victorian predecessors, with their excessive displays of feeling, Modernist writers resorted to irony. Sentimentalism was deemed uncool. But let us reason now: There is a difference between sappy sentimentalism and genuine feeling. At his best, Joyce expresses the latter. In these moments, he is neither ironist nor sentimentalist, but something better and between. Irony has its place in Ulysses, but not the final word.
* * *
Ulysses, again, is extraordinarily intricate—not just in its multilayered allusions, but in the way its cast of characters mill around Dublin, meeting and parting and missing each other. Take the chapter called “Wandering Rocks”: It comprises eighteen sections, narrated by eighteen characters, all simultaneously wandering the streets at 3 p.m. The ironic reading sees these complex interactions as deadpan, automated—the switching narrators mechanized, the products of industrial consciousness, with Joyce deistically supervising, feet kicked back. Contrastingly, one might argue that Joyce’s orchestration of this mundane action calls attention to the unity of human experience, and as such is one of literature's greatest entreaties for sympathy—sympathy of the characters with one another, and of the reader with the characters.
Now zoom in on a smaller, but more resounding, example. Later in the day, after Stephen has a manic episode in Dublin’s red-light district, Bloom invites the stumbling, starving artist home for a cup of cocoa. Bloom sees in Stephen’s “quick young male familiar form the predestination of a future.” He dreams up ways they could see more of each other in the days and weeks to come. Stephen having refused Bloom’s invitation to stay the night, Bloom sees him out through the back garden, where they pause to gaze at the stars and relieve themselves.
Joyce describes the two urine streams in minute and ornate detail (“Bloom’s longer, less irruent. . .Stephen’s higher, more sibilant”). The episode could be parodic—as if to say that, despite Bloom’s hopes, this is all their meeting amounts to. It has been nasty, brutish, and short. By devoting his literary energy to excretions instead of aspirations, Joyce belittles his characters and their hopes, ironizing them and asserting authorial power over them. They’re just illusions of language after all—no need to care!
And yet—the language shows such care. One could equally read the urination scene as demonstrating the incredibly comprehensive, embracing scope of Ulysses. There is love here—though not the sentimental love that overlooks meannesses and blemishes. In Ulysses, Joyce set out to capture a day-in-the-life with all the fullness of life—not excluding the carnal, the morbid, the scatological. In various chapters we get Bloom in the privy, Bloom at a funeral, Bloom masturbating. (And this: “No-one behind. She’s passed. . . .Good oppor. Coming. . . .Pprrpffrrppfff. Done.” Yes, that was Bloom passing gas.) This is the unsentimental love that accepts that neither Bloom nor Stephen will find a fated spiritual union on this day—but that sees fit to record their banal meeting with wonder, clarity, and insight.
So when Stephen, embittered littérateur, unflattering portrait of Joyce as a young man, reflects in a gem cutter’s shop that we are “born all in dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness,” we know that he is the butt of the ironic joke. Don’t be Stephen.
* * *
Joyce received a fine Jesuit education, which he rebelled against but which was unquestionably formative. As one character says to Stephen (a.k.a. Joyce): “You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” So it should be no surprise to find Joyce writing Thomistically in his diary in 1903, a year before beginning work on Ulysses: “The true and the beautiful are spiritually possessed. The appetites which desire to possess them, the intellectual and esthetic appetites, are therefore spiritual appetites.”
When Joyce spent time alone with his diary, he was not ironic. He was unembarrassed by the things of the spirit. The intellectual and the aesthetic are spiritual appetites, which means the novel as practiced by Joyce—an intellectual and aesthetic endeavor if ever there was one—satisfies spiritual appetites. It is about meaning and feeling, not about the esoteric play of language. Its characters are people with souls—and its readers are, too.
And so what lesson does Joyce have for the postmodern reader (or writer)? We should acknowledge the reality of the soul, and what it hungers for when it creates or consumes great art. It hungers for insight and clarity, for the true and the beautiful—and for affirmation that our lives are worthy endeavors. Joyce's affirmations took the form of fastidious particularity and attention to detail, and unabashed abundance of language. For Joyce, the crafting of Ulysses—a project on which he spent sixteen years!—was an affirmation that his characters mattered, that human lives matter, and that literature matters.
On this “Bloomsday,” let us consider: Are we reading Ulysses—are we reading anything—as we should? Confessing that literature is worthy, we must forfeit the effortless cool of irony—lest we forget what separates the spiritual from mere material, souls from “cold specks of fire.”
Kelsey Burritt is an MFA candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.