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.)
But you've also written fondly about the 30-page Hamlet discussion in the "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter.
All right, it's true, in The Shakespeare Wars I pay tribute to Joyce's quite tender and loving speculation about the emotional resonance of one putative episode in Shakespeare's life. It's based on the apocryphal story that when Shakespeare was an actor at the Globe, he played Old Hamlet, the ghost of young Hamlet's murdered father. And thus at that moment when the Ghost cries out to Hamlet on the stage, Shakespeare was—since he'd lost a son named Hamnet (or Hamlet) when the boy was only 11— in some poignant, resonant way crying out to his lost boy from the realm of the living to that of the dead. It's just about the only biographical speculation about Shakespeare I have any patience for, and that includes Stephen Greenblatt's elaborate but unfounded fantasy about the origin of Shylock, and James Shapiro's baseless sophistry about how Shakespeare supposedly wanted to cut Hamlet's last soliloquy.
Aren't you digressing from the subject here?
Yes! That's the reason I like the Ithaca episode. The second reason. The Q&A form allows the Questioner both to digress and to interrupt digression piling upon digression and get the Answerer back on topic.
What did Q interrupt here?
An incipient digression on my part about a long-running scholarly discussion over the relationship between the names "Hamlet" and "Hamnet" (always interchangeable back in the 16th century?), which would have obscured my main point.
Joyce was onto something if not historically then heartbreakingly, metaphorically true when he conjured up a ghostly Shakespeare calling out to a lost Hamlet.
Was there anything else you liked about Ulysses you're holding back on?
Well, the spelling of the sound the cat makes in the opening of the Leopold Bloom chapter.
Can you elaborate?
OK, everybody likes the opening of the Leopold Bloom section: "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fouls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs, fried hencod's roes."
I'm not hearing anything here about the cat sound.
OK, OK. The "cat-echism," you might say, comes just a couple paragraphs later. Joyce renders a hungry morning cat's imploration as "Mrkgnao!" an achievement of undeniably felicitous genius and accuracy that transcends by far the conventional "Meow."
You're digressing again. Let's get back to the Ithaca episode. Why do you like it so much?
Well, consider the four questions it opens with. (I've omitted the answers.)
- "What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning [from Dublin's 'Nighttown']?"
- "Of what did the duumvirate deliberate during their itinerary?"
- "Did Bloom discover common factors of similarity between their respective like and unlike reactions to experience?"
- "Were their views on some points divergent?"
What is it you like so much about a narrative proceeding this way?
Well, I think the signature of bad writing or writing that hasn't been polished is the false or the forced transition. Q&A narrative pretty much dispenses with any pretense at smooth transition, thus avoiding the problem. It's abrupt, playful, and it recognizes the two primal curiosities that enable narrative drive: the desire to know "what happened next?" and the desire to know "just who is this person or persons to whom whatever it is that happened happened?"
And what makes that different from ordinary narrative?
Well for one thing it introduces two new characters, Mr. Q and Mr. A, who hover namelessly over the two previously established protagonists' wanderings and converse about their personalities and past and present situations. After a while Mr. Q and Mr. A turn out to have divergent personalities of their own—and divergent situations, in the metaphysical scheme of things.
Whatever do you mean by that?
How does Mr. A know so much, is he the Creator of everything in the book? Does A stand for author? Has A authored Q, too? And Q's questions as well? But Mr. Q seems to be in some different space or place than Mr. A. It's dizzying in a pleasurable way, the thinking about fiction this chapter gives rise to.
Well, ordinary narrative often takes these things for granted or makes you feel unsophisticated for wondering about who the narrator is and how much he or she knows. There's something touching about the way this narrative seems to care that you know certain things. Ordinary narrative acts as if it doesn't care what you care about, only what it cares about and acts all superior by making you guess why. The Q&A form makes you wonder why you wonder why. It's not about piling on literary tricks, so much as dismantling them to see how they're done.
What's the most revealing of the first four questions?
The answer to the fourth question on what points their view diverged: "Bloom assented covertly to Stephen's rectification of the anachronism involved in assigning the date of the conversion of the Irish nation to christianity from druidism by Patrick son of Calpornus, son of Potitus son of Odyssus sent by pope Celestine I in the year 432 in the reign of Leary to the year 260 or thereabouts in the reign of Cormac MacArt ..."
What has that got to do with the price of eggs?
Well, it suggests the comfortable interchange of two people who differ in many ways but are both erudite in a geeky way and the spiritual communion their geekdom affords them. (I also love that he slips that "Odyssus" reference in.)
Is there more to it, your interest in the catechism narrative method?
Well, to be honest I've only recently become fascinated by the catechism chapter and the way it uses Q&A as a narrative and meditative technique. But I love the way the form can both move things forward and also allow them to pause. To be endowed with unexpected and often surprising depth, detail, and dimensionality through the use of the interrogative (sometimes the interrogation) mode.
But that's not all, right?
Jeez, you're getting personal. If you must know, I've actually been experimenting with the catechismic method as a way of doing fiction, wondering whether an entire novel could be told that way.
What kind of novel?
A New York love story.
So what was the problem?
Well, the technical problem that besets me is my affinity for digression. I had resorted to using this catechismic technique to overcome my tendency to pile digression upon digression upon digression rather than moving the narrative forward.
Explain your epiphany in this regard.
In seeking to describe the Tribeca party where my protagonist met his new love, it took me so long to get past my many observations concerning the hors d'ouerves that I had finally out of frustration cap-locked: COME ON DAMMIT, AT LEAST DESCRIBE THE DRESS SHE WAS WEARING!! And I realized I heard an echo of the impatient catechismic Mr. Q, and suddenly realized why Joyce liked it. The way it cut through the endless possibility of digression and gets to the heart of the matter.
Are there any other reasons you want people to read the Ithaca episode?
Well, to name just one, I think it offers some of the most beautiful passages Joyce wrote in his entire oeuvre.
The one that begins with Q asking, "What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?"
And A answers: "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."
And then the next three pages of transcendently beautiful prose consisting mainly of Bloom's meditations upon the constellations and the moon. Some of the most lyrical and spiritual writing in all Ulysses.
What is your advice to the reader of this column?
Don't die before you read these passages.
Describe her dress.
It was a short black sleeveless shift.
A Betsey Johnson.
Was there a special significance to that dress?
yes he said yes
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.