From the Archives: Edmund Wilson on Ulysses

by TNR Staff | June 15, 2012

Each year, June 16 marks Bloomsday, a celebration where Dubliners, fans of James Joyce, and the hardy souls who count themselves among the few who have actually finished Ulysses commemorate the life of the great Irish novelist. It was this day in 1904 that Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s magnum opus, spent wandering the streets of the Irish capital. In his authoritative review of the novel in TNR, Edmund Wilson reflects on the scale of the work, whose first edition weighed in at 730 pages. Noting parallels with the Odyssey and drawing comparisons to Flaubert, Wilson concludes that “for all its appalling longueurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius.”

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.” 

Here’s the full article.

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