FROM THE STACKS AUGUST 16, 2013
On August 16, 1922, in the midst of writing Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf penned a passage in her diary panning James Joyce's Ulysses. "An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me ... the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?" But New Republic editor Edmund Wilson would have disagreed with her—he, instead, praised it as a "work of high genius." In memoriam of Woolf's legendary take-down, a reprint of Wilson's original review.
On the 16th of June, 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom were both living in Dublin. Both differed from the people about them and walked in isolation among them because each was, according to his capacity, an intellectual adventurer—Dedalus, the poet and philosopher, with a mind full of beautiful images and abstruse speculations and Bloom, the advertisement canvasser, in a more rudimentary fashion. In the evening, Mr. Bloom and Dedalus became involved in the same drunken party and Dedalus was knocked unconscious in a quarrel with a British soldier. Then their kinship was made plain. Bloom felt wistfully that Stephen was all he would have had his own son be and Stephen, who despised his own father—an amiable wastrel—found a sort of spiritual father in this sympathetic Jew, who, mediocre as he was, had at least the dignity of intelligence. Were they not both outlaws to their environment by reason of the fact that they thought and imagined?
Stated in the baldest possible terms, this is the story of Ulysses—an ironic and amusing anecdote without philosophic moral. In describing the novel thus, I have the authority of the author himself, who said to Miss Djuna Barnes, in an interview published in Vanity Fair: "The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it." The thing that makes Ulysses imposing is, in fact, not the theme but the scale upon which it is developed. It has taken Mr. Joyce seven years to write Ulysses and he has done it in seven hundred and thirty pages, which are probably the most completely "written" pages to be seen in any novel since Flaubert. Not only is the anecdote expanded to its fullest possible bulk—there is an elaborate account of nearly everything done or thought by Mr. Bloom from morning to night of the day in question—but you have both the "psychological" method and the Flaubertian method of making the style suit the thing described carried several steps further than they have ever been before, so that, whereas in Flaubert you have merely the words and cadences carefully adapted to convey the specific mood or character without any attempt to identify the narrative with the stream of consciousness of the person described, and in Henry James merely the exploration of the stream of consciousness with only one vocabulary and cadence for the whole cast of moods and characters, in Joyce you have not only life from the outside described with Flaubertian virtuosity but also the consciousness of each of the characters and of each of the character's moods made to speak in the idiom proper to it, the language it uses to itself. If Flaubert taught de Maupassant to find the adjective which would distinguish a given hackney-cab from every other hackney-cab in the world, James Joyce has prescribed that one must find the dialect which would distinguish the thoughts of a given Dubliner from those of every other Dubliner. So we have the thoughts of Mr. Bloom presented in a rapid staccato notation continually jetting out in all directions in little ideas within ideas with the flexibility and complexity of an alert and nimble mind; Mrs. Bloom's in a long rhythmic brogue like the swell of some profound sea; Father Conmee's in precise prose, perfectly colorless and orderly; Stephen Dedalus's in a kaleidoscope of bright images and fragments of things remembered from books; and Gerty-Nausicaa's half in school girl colloquialisms and half in the language of the cheap romances which have given their color to her mind. And these voices are used to record all the eddies and stagnancies of thought; though exercising a severe selection which makes the book a technical triumph, Mr. Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another, confused and diverted by memory, by sensation and by inhibition. It is, in short, perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.
And as a result of this enormous scale and this microscopic fidelity the chief characters in Ulysses take on heroic proportions. Each one is a room, a house, a city in which the reader can move around. The inside of each one of them is a novel in itself. You stand within a world infinitely populated with the swarming life of experience. Stephen Dedalus, in his scornful pride, rears his brow as a sort of Lucifer; poor Bloom, with his generous impulses and his attempts to understand and master life, is the epic symbol of reasoning man, humiliated and ridiculous, yet extricating himself by cunning from the spirits which seek to destroy him; and Mrs. Bloom, with her terrific force of mingled amorous and maternal affection, with her roots in the dirt of the earth and her joyous flowering in beauty, is the gigantic image of the earth itself from which both Dedalus and Bloom have sprung and which sounds a deep foundation to the whole drama like the ground-tone at the beginning of The Rhine-Gold. I cannot agree with Mr. Arnold Bennett that James Joyce "has a colossal 'down' on humanity." I feel that Mr. Bennett has really been shocked because Mr. Joyce has told the whole truth. Fundamentally Ulysses is not at all like Bouvard et Pecuchet (as some people have tried to pretend). Flaubert says in effect that he will prove to you that humanity is mean by enumerating all the ignobilities of which it has ever been capable. But Joyce, including all the ignobilities, makes his bourgeois figures command our sympathy and respect by letting us see in them the throes of the human mind straining always to perpetuate and perfect itself and of the body always laboring and throbbing to throw up some beauty from its darkness.
Nonetheless, there are some valid criticisms to be brought against Ulysses. It seems to me great rather for the things that are in it than for its success as a whole. It is almost as if in distending the story to ten times its natural size he had finally managed to burst it and leave it partially deflated. There must be something wrong with a design which involves so much that is dull—and I doubt whether anyone will defend parts of Ulysses against the charge of extreme dullness. In the first place, it is evidently not enough to have invented three tremendous characters (with any quantity of lesser ones); in order to produce an effective book they must be made to do something interesting. Now in precisely what is the interest of Ulysses supposed to consist? In the spiritual relationship between Dedalus and Bloom? But too little is done with this. When it is finally realized there is one poignant moment, then a vast tract of anticlimax. This single situation in itself could hardly justify the previous presentation of everything else that has happened to Bloom before on the same day. No, the major theme of the book is to he found in its parallel with the Odyssey: Bloom is a sort of modern Ulysses—with Dedalus as Telemachus—and the scheme and proportions of the novel must be made to correspond to those of the epic. It is these and not the inherent necessities of the subject which have dictated the size and shape of Ulysses. You have, for example, the events of Mr. Bloom's day narrated at such unconscionable length and the account of Stephen's synchronous adventures confined almost entirely to the first three chapters because it is only the early books of the Odyssey which are concerned with Telemachus and thereafter the first half of the poem is devoted to the wanderings of Ulysses. You must have a Cyclops, a Nausicaa, an Aeolus, a Nestor and some Sirens and your justification for a full-length Penelope is the fact that there is one in the Odyssey. There is, of course, a point in this, because the adventures of Ulysses were fairly typical; they do represent the ordinary man in nearly every common relation. Yet I cannot but feel that Mr. Joyce made a mistake to have the whole plan of his story depend on the structure of the Odyssey rather than on the natural demands of the situation. I feel that though his taste for symbolism is closely allied with his extraordinary poetic faculty for investing particular incidents with universal significance, nevertheless—because it is the homeless symbolism of a Catholic who has renounced the faith—it sometimes overruns the bounds of art into an arid ingenuity which would make a mystic correspondence of duty for an artistic reason. The result is that one sometimes feels as if the brilliant succession of episodes were taking place on the periphery of a wheel which has no hub. The monologue of Mrs. Bloom, for example, tremendous as it is and though in Mrs. Bloom's mental rejection of Blazes Boylan in favor of Stephen Dedalus it contains the greatest moral climax of the story, seems to me to lose dramatic force by hanging loose at the end of the book. What we have is nothing less than the spectacle of the earth tending naturally to give birth to higher forms of life, the supreme vindication of Bloom and Dedalus against the brutality and ignorance which surround them, but after the sterilities and practical jokes of the chapters immediately preceding and the general diversion of interest which the Odyssean structure has involved the episode lacks the definitive force which a closer integration would have provided for.
These sterilities and practical jokes form my second theme of complaint. Not content with inventing new idioms to reproduce the minds of his characters, Mr. Joyce has hit upon the idea of pressing literary parody into service to create certain kinds of impressions. It is not so bad when in order to convey the atmosphere of a newspaper office he merely breaks up his chapter with newspaper heads, but when he insists upon describing a drinking party in an interminable series of imitations which progresses through English prose from the style of the Anglo-Soxon chronicles to that of Carlyle one begins to feel uncomfortable. What is wrong is that Mr. Joyce has attempted an impossible genre. You cannot be a realistic novelist in Mr. Joyce's particular vein and write burlesques at the same time. Max Beerbohm's Christmas Garland is successful because Mr. Beerbohm is telling the other man's story in the other man's words but Joyce's parodies are labored and irritating because he is trying to tell his own story in the other man's words. We are not interested in his skill at imitation but in finding out what happens to his characters and the parody interposes a heavy curtain between ourselves and them. Even if it were at all conceivable that this sort of thing could be done successfully, Mr. Joyce would be the last man to do it. He has been praised for being Rabelaisian but he is at the other end of the world from Rabelais. In the first place, he has not the style for it—he can never be reckless enough with words. His style is thin—by which I do not mean that it is not strong but that it is like a thin metallic pipe through which the narrative is run—a pipe of which every joint has been fitted by a master plumber. You cannot inflate such a style or splash it about. Mr. Joyce's native temperament and the method which it has naturally chosen have no room for superabundance or extravagant fancy. It is the method of Flaubert—and of Turgenev and de Maupassant: you set down with the most careful accuracy and the most scrupulous economy of detail exactly what happened to your characters, and merely from the way in which the thing is told—not from any comment of the narrator—the reader draws his ironic inference. In this genre—which has probably brought novel-writing to its highest dignity as an art—Mr. Joyce has long proved himself a master. And in Ulysses most of his finest scenes adhere strictly to this formula. Nothing, for example, could be better in this kind than the way in which the reader is made to find out, without any overt statement of the fact, that Bloom is different from his neighbors, or the scene in which we are made to feel that this difference has become a profound antagonism before it culminates in the open outburst against Bloom of the Cyclops-Sinn Feiner. The trouble is that this last episode is continually being held up by long parodies which break in upon the text like a kind of mocking commentary. It is as if Boule de Suif were padded out with sections from J. C. Squire—or rather from a parodist whose parodies are even more boring than Mr. Squire's. No: surely Mr. Joyce has done ill in attempting to graft burlesque upon realism; he has written some of the most unreadable chapters in the whole history of fiction.—(If it be urged that Joyce's gift for fantasy is attested by the superb drunken scene, I reply that this scene is successful, not because it is reckless nonsense but because it is an accurate record of drunken states of mind. The visions that bemuse Bloom and Dedalus are not like the visions of Alice in Wonderland but merely the repressed fears and desires of these two specific consciousnesses externalized and made visible. What the reader sees is not a new fantastic world with new and more wonderful beings but two perfectly recognizable drunken men in a squalid and dingy brothel no harsh detail of which is allowed to escape by the great realist who describes it.)
Yet, for all its appalling longueurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge—unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction—or in inventing new literary forms—Joyce's formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old—as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. Ulysses has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy. Since I have read it, the texture of other novelists seems intolerably loose and careless; when I come suddenly unawares upon a page that I have written myself I quake like a guilty thing surprised. The only question now is whether Joyce will ever write a tragic masterpiece to set beside this comic one. There is a rumor that he will write no more—that he claims to have nothing left to say—and it is true that there is a paleness about parts of his work which suggests a rather limited emotional experience. His imagination is all intensive; he has but little vitality to give away. His minor characters, though carefully differentiated, are sometimes too drily differentiated, insufficiently animated with life, and he sometimes gives the impression of eking out his picture with the data of a too laborious note-taking. At his worst he recalls Flaubert at his worst—in L'Education Sentimentale. But if he repeats Flaubert's vices—as not a few have done—he also repeats his triumphs—which almost nobody has done. Who else has had the supreme devotion and accomplished the definitive beauty? If he has really laid down his pen never to take it up again he must know that the hand which laid it down upon the great affirmative of Mrs. Bloom, though it never write another word, is already the hand of a master.
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