Ulysses, Modernism, and Myth: An Exploration of the Modernist Approach to Mythology

Ulysses, Modernism, and Myth: An Exploration of the Modernist Approach to Mythology

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Upon first reading Ulysses by James Joyce, it may seem as though Joyce is creating chaos, but to read this text without looking deeper into it does not do it justice. Each word on the page is significant to understanding the novel as a whole, and it is when one reads the text with this in mind that its true significance emerges. It also helps to have knowledge of Homer’s epic the Odyssey. Without at least some familiarity with the original epic poem, Ulysses becomes impossible to fully grasp. The other tool to understanding it is familiarity with Modernist thought and theory, as framed in the wake of World War I. Though the novel takes place before the War, it was published in 1922, just a few years after the War ended. The chaos and senseless loss of life that occurred left a deep impact on the psyche of those that lived through it, and it was the writers and artists who demonstrated this. In his essay on Ulysses, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” T. S. Eliot states: “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found,” (Ellmann and Feidelson 680). Eliot realizes the importance of the novel and the role that it fulfills in the Modernist literature tradition. Ulysses is a completely Modernist text, and it becomes possible to understand the Modernist view of mythology through reading it.
One modernist author, Herman Broch, discusses his approach to mythology in his essay “The Style of the Mythical Age.” His focus is on understanding and using archetypes as a way of analyzing mythology. He says, “Myth is the archetype of every phenomenal cognition of which the human mind is capable,” (102). For Broch, Modernist literature is a return to the mythic; myth is the only way in which the world may be understo...


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...d the “continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” which Eliot calls the “mythical method,” aids the reader in understanding the Modernist approach. Through the play between the conscious and the unconscious, Joyce utilizes depth psychology. His interplay between the Odyssey and his own story show the archetypes of Homer and their significance. Ulysses, while being the best example of a Modernist text, is also a book that is needed in Joyce’s world just as much as the Odyssey was needed when it was written. Though Homer’s work has not lost its significance, Joyce’s reworking of it has made it even more relevant for a world which is so different and changed from Homer’s. He has written a book for the “next generation,” as Eliot tells his readers. It is the duty of the reader then to utilize Joyce’s work as a tool by which Modernism may be understood.

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