Is Ulysses Overrated?
All but one chapter—and not the one you think.
Why did you decide to write this column in question-and-answer form?
Good question! As a tribute to a single chapter in Ulysses, the 70-page chapter known as the "Ithaca episode," the penultimate section of that otherwise overrevered modernist classic.
Does it have another name?
It's also informally known as the "catechism" chapter. It's the one that precedes the climactic Molly Bloom soliloquy and the one that many skip over to get to Molly's sexual meditations. More saliently, it's the one that is written entirely in question and answer form—in tribute, parody, and affectionately snarky celebration of the interrogatory rhetoric of the theological-indoctrination catechism form.
Why undertake this task now?
Two reasons. First there was the recent London Sunday Telegraph list of the 50 most overrated novels. Actually the way they put it was "Not the 50 books you have to read before you die," as a sort of swipe at literary bucket lists. And on top of the list, number one with a bullet, was Ulysses.
How did they characterize it?
They said: "Only a 'modern classic' could condense one man's day into an experimental epic that takes years to plough through. If the early description of the protagonist going to the lavatory doesn't make your eyes swim, the final 40 pages, untroubled by punctuation, will."
Was this fair?
Obviously it was deliberately mean-spirited, but on the whole Ulysses is due for more than a little irreverence. People still speak of it in hushed tones, perhaps hoping nobody will ask them about the parts they skipped over.
So you do think Ulysses is overrated?
In general, yes. Loved Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, but didn't need it blown up to Death-Star size and overinfused with deadly portentousness. Ulysses is an overwrought, overwritten epic of gratingly obvious, self-congratulatory, show-off erudition that, with its overstuffed symbolism and leaden attempts at humor, is bearable only by terminal graduate students who demand we validate the time they've wasted reading it.
Why so hostile?
For one thing, Ulysses gives a bad name and a misleading genealogy to "experimental literature." For another, it's the source of similar bloated mistakes by later novelists.
What do you mean, "misleading genealogy" of experimental literature?
The thing that's so galling is, of course, that all Joyce's tired and antiquated modernist tricks had long been anticipated by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, that amazing 18th-century novel that eclipses Ulysses in every way and shows how we've lowered the bar for anointing innovative literary "geniuses" ever since.
And what later artists' mistakes?
I'm thinking of Thomas Pynchon after V. and The Crying of Lot 49, his two masterpieces. I think it's clear that his followup, the bloated and nearly incoherent Gravity's Rainbow, was his deliberate attempt—out of a misguided reverence for Joyce—to create a Ulysses of his own. It's a mode of sloppy giganticism he's suffered from ever since.
So why are you rushing to the defense of just this one chapter in Ulysses?
Because I don't believe the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. (Yes, I know, this is just the sort of cliché Joyce ridicules in the Eumaeus chapter.) Ulysses is best looked upon as a grab bag of great riffs and long stretches of tedious pretentiousness. All too many readers give up on Ulysses before Buck Mulligan finishes shaving—the silver shaving bowl is like an ecclesiastical salver, see! Isn't that profound?—and never reach that beautiful, tender and meditative semifinal "Ithaca" chapter with its Q&A format. The one chapter you should read before you die.
Why not the final Molly Bloom chapter, the one I always hear about from Ulysses defenders?
I find that men should refrain from commenting on the Molly Bloom soliloquy because they almost always make fools of themselves in doing so.
It's almost always a transparently sneaky attempt to promulgate the notion that they know what they're talking about when it comes to women and sexuality. Almost all male commentary presumes the commentators have privileged access to the secrets of feminine sensibility and thus are qualified to judge whether Joyce's rendition of Molly's soliloquy captures it fully. It's a surefire test for phonies in that department. Not to mention a sadly overused seduction ploy by sad-sack English majors. Pity the poor women who have to put up with multiple renditions of "I really related to Molly Bloom, you know."
OK, then. Aside from "Ithaca" are there any other aspects of Ulysses you find worthwhile?
I do love the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, in which Joyce writes chronologically successive rafts of prose that replicate the stylistic evolution of English writing from Chaucer to the present. It's skillful and funny and offers a tapestrylike illustration of the progress of language and rhetoric, style as content.
So what's the problem there?
I like the Oxen chapter for all the wrong reasons: It's a hermetic riff that invites you to join the secret society of English majors who take a selfish delight in its conceit (and in theirs). The chapter may be considered a minor tour de force, but it calls too much attention to its showy device for its own good. (Full disclosure: I was an English major, if you haven't already guessed.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of James Joyce in the public domain.