Comments on Joyce's Ulysses

Comments on Joyce's Ulysses

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Ulysses is a grand work of superscription, the creation of a palimpsest spanning millennia of western thought, from the centuries of oral tradition. Australians confronting their insidious, invisible birthrights: cultural cringe, the "tyranny of distance" exacerbated by the "anxiety of influence"--in sum, a mythos where art, like life, is "elsewhere"-- may take tonic from Joyce's despair with his own country, the "afterthought of Europe", despite its brilliant literary stars: Swift, Wilde, Yeats, Synge and so on.

Stephen Dedalus contrasts the increasing squalor of his circumstances with a Dublin which the young artist has overwritten in his mind with various literary associations:

The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann; and the memory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy. His morning walk across the city had begun, and he foreknew that as he passed the sloblands of Fairview he would think of the cloistral silver-veined prose of Newman; that as he walked along the North Strand Road, glancing idly at the windows of the provision shops, he would recall the dark humour of Guido Cavalcanti and smile; that as he went by Baird's stonecutting works in Talbot Place the spirit of Ibsen would blow through him like a keen wind, a spirit of wayward boyish beauty... (P 179)

Joyce once remarked that one's writing must be national first, then universal. Fictively, Joyce never left Dublin at all....all the history and literature of the world can be found here in "dear dirty Dublin". And yet his comic appropriation of Greek myth goes beyond blending "two ends of the western tradition like a multitemporal, multi-territorial pun" (Ellmann, 1972, p.2) to set up a dialogue between carnivalesque mockery and sublime counterbalance for all that his country lacked: intellectual and political heroism, adventurousness, the ability to fly by those various nets which enchained the spirit.

Oliver Gogarty, in It isn't This Time of Year at All records that the figure of the young "artist" is a double entendre. A "great artist" in Dublin stood for a practical joker or a playboy; someone who prefers diversion to discipline; a producer, an "artifex", a droll. The dialogical contrast is highlighted from Portrait to Ulysses, where we learn the fate of the pompous devotee of Aristotle and Aquinas, the Daedalus posed for dramatic flight:

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Fabulous artificer. The hawklike man. You flew. Whereto?

Newhaven-Dieppe, steerage passenger. Paris and back. Lapwing. Icarus.

"Brothers", said I "that have come valiantly

Through hundred thousand jeopardies undergone

To reach the West, you will not now deny

To this last little vigil left to run

Of feeling life, the new experience

Of the uninhabited world behind the sun.

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance

Your mettle was not made; you were made men,

To follow after knowledge and excellence." (Dante, Inferno, p.236)

Thus spoke Ulysses. Joyce first came across this figure as a child in Charles Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses, and later through Dante. Indeed, by the age of 20, Joyce still had little interest in Homer. According to Padraic Colum's account, Joyce thought the Greek epics were outside the tradition of European culture, and that the Divine Comedy was Europe's epic. He also defined Hellenism as "European appendicitis", so when Buck Mulligan promises to "Hellenise" the island, this is not without authorial irony (JJ 103).

Joyce adapted for himself a peculiarly secular Jesuit pursuit of the Truth: pursuing the "uninhabited world behind the sun": the insolite, the obscure, the unspoken, the unconscious ...all these territories would Joyce counter-colonise against the dominant orthodoxies of fiction, for the rest of his wandering days.

Dante's Ulysses meets a sticky end: his eager crew having plied ever further south, encountering the "other pole" in the night sky, finally arrives at the great grey mountain which was thought to be the sole land in the Antipodes. This tall island blew foul weather, shipwrecking (and presumably killing) the entire crew as "over our heads the hollow seas closed up". This land was popularly believed to be Purgatory.

 

 

 
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