After he completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce had pretty well exhausted the possibilities of the artist hero. For his next book he needed a new impulse. He was beginning to find it long before he used it, in 1907 also. In that year his remarks to his brother indicate that he was situating himself in relation to Ibsen, a figure he had idolized in his youth. “Auld Aibsen always wrote like a gentleman,” he said, and added that he himself would not write so. On May 16, 1907, he commented, “Life is not so simple as Ibsen represents it. Mrs. Alving, for instance, is Motherhood and so on…. It’s all very fine and large, of course. If it had been written at the time of Moses, we’d now think it wonderful. But it has no importance at this age of the world. It is a remnant of heroics, too.”
Joyce was very much opposed to heroics. “For me,” he went on, “youth and motherhood are these two beside us.” He pointed to a drunken boy of about twenty, a laborer, who had brought his mother into the trattoria where Joyce and Stanislaus were talking, while the mother was leading him home. He was hardly able to speak but was expressing his contempt for someone as well as he could. “I would like to put on paper the thousand complexities in his mind….” Joyce was obviously imagining the dense consciousness that he would give to his characters in Ulysses. He went on, “Absolute realism is impossible, of course. That we all know. But it’s quite enough that Ibsen has omitted all question of finance from his thirteen dramas.” Stanislaus took it upon himself to object, “Maybe there are some people who are not so preoccupied about money as you are.” “Maybe so, by God,” said his brother, “but I’d like to take twenty-five lessons from one of those chaps.”
Given a writer so convinced that old ways would not do for him, Ulysses was from the start designed to break with precedents. “The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance,” Joyce (whose mental balance was not upset) confided to Harriet Weaver. In this book he set himself as many difficulties as he could, knowing that his genius would be equal to them. There is the title itself, so abrupt in its insistence on a mythical background, which, however, is never mentioned as it was in A Portrait of the Artist. The author’s silence about it is intimidating, yet the relation to the Odyssey is problematic, and its intensity varies from chapter to chapter, or even from page to page. Joyce felt at liberty to deal with Homer as highhandedly as Virgil had done, keeping the basic typology but varying and omitting and adding as his own book required.
In the first episodes he realized his ambition of rendering the thousand complexities in the mind, and for the first time in literature we have all the lapses and bursts of attention, hesitations, half-recollections, distractions, sudden accesses or flaggings of sexual interest, feelings of hunger or nausea, somnolence, sneezing, thoughts about money, responses to the clouds and sunlight, along with the complications of social behavior and work.
Joyce’s power is shown not only in the density of sensations, but also in the poetry and humor that infuse the principal characters and in the spirited irony of the narrator. Yet to mention these characteristics is to be put in mind of others. There is an extraordinary counterpoint between the first three chapters dealing with Stephen Dedalus and the next three chapters dealing with Bloom. It is not only the implicit parallel of their responses at the same hours of the day, but the inner nature of the incidents that are described. So at the start of the first chapter, Buck Mulligan, holding a shaving bowl as if it was a chalice, claims to be transubstantiating the lather in it into the body and blood of Christ. Bloom makes an unspoken derisive commentary on this miracle when, at the end of the fourth chapter, he has a bowel movement and so in effect transubstantiates food into feces. Stephen ponders the way that states and churches alike have engaged in persecutions and sadistic wars, while Bloom thinks about the masochism that attracts devotees to confess and ask for punishment. A recognition of sadomasochism seems to bind the characters together, though they have not yet met. Then Stephen, as he walks along the strand and sees the debris heaped up by the waves, thinks darkly of the process of life as one from birth to decay to death. In the parallel passage in Bloom’s morning, Bloom attends a funeral, and is put in mind of the process from death through decay to new birth. What we thought were two parallel lines prove to be a circle.
As the book proceeds, the circle is itself questioned and sometimes mocked. And the reign of order gives way to the reign of chaos. The physical universe, so glancingly built up in all its multiplicity in the early episodes, begins to lose its plausibility. Space and time, once so distinct, are shaken almost out of recognition. The reader, like the narrative, is caught up in the agitations and images of the unconscious mind. Our daytime selves are almost overwhelmed by this night. Yet in all the disorder Joyce keeps as firm a hand as he had when all was order in the early chapters. At the end he gives us back our world, somewhat the worse for wear, based no longer upon primal certitude but upon affirmation in the face of doubt, as the universe hangs upon the void. And while he prided himself on his novel’s physicality, and ended with a supposedly fleshly monologue, what we recognize in reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is that she is no more fleshly than Hamlet, and that for her too the mind affects everything. The tenor of her thoughts is to acknowledge grudgingly that her husband, who recognizes her wit and musical talent and inner nature, is a better man than her lover Blazes Boylan.
She pays Bloom the ultimate compliment, one rarely heard by men from women: “I saw he understood or felt what a woman is.” Penelope recognizes Ulysses not by his scar but by his imagination. Although Joyce said jocularly of her that she is the flesh that always affirms, she is not to be identified with unconsciousness, or Mother Nature, or fertility. Her amorous career has been limited. She has copulated a little, she has ruminated a great deal. Bodies do not exist without minds. Molly may not be capable of impersonal thought, as Bloom is, but she has a good sharp practical intelligence. She is in fact cerebral too—a great and unexpected tribute from a writer who in life said many unpleasant things about women.
Joyce thought of his books as way stations on a psychic journey. His last book, Finnegans Wake, was an even more “extravagant excursion into forbidden territory,” since it invaded the region of language itself, a region which other novelists had left inviolate. Dante obliged Italian literature to use the vernacular instead of Latin. Joyce’s invention of Finnegans-Wake-ese was not intended to change literature so fundamentally, though it has had its imitators. Rather he wished to find an adequate medium to describe the world of night, the world of dream, the world of the unconscious, the world of madness. In such an atmosphere neither shapes, events, nor words could be intact. As he wrote in a letter, “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Every person experiences this other state, but Joyce also envisaged a “universal history” in which he would represent the night world of humanity. This night world had always been associated with dark fantasies, but no one had described its work.
The principal work of the night shift of humanity—meaning its involuntary, accidental, half-conscious stages, is the perpetual de-creation and re-creation of language. The tongue slips, no one knows why. We go to sleep speaking Latin and wake up speaking French. Words break up, combine with words mysteriously imported from other languages, play tricks upon their own components. In the twinkling of a closed eye a red rose becomes a red nose, a phoenix becomes a finish, a funeral becomes a funforall.
Joyce insisted that he was working strictly in accordance with the laws of phonetics, the only difference being that he accomplished in one fictional night what might take hundreds of years to occur through gradual linguistic change. He commented to a friend, Jacques Mercanton, “I reconstruct the life of the night the way the Demiurge goes about his creation, on the basis of a mental scenario that never varies. The only difference is that I obey laws I have not chosen. And he?” (He did not continue.) When people complained that the puns he was obliged by his scenario to use were trivial he made the famous retort, “Yes, some of my means are trivial, and some are quadrivial.” When they said his puns were childish, he accepted the supposed blame with alacrity. He prided himself on not having grown up. His voice, he said, had never changed in adolescence. “It’s because I’ve not developed. If I had matured, I wouldn’t be so committed to the folie of writing Work in Progress.” Keeping the child in the man gave him access to the universe that adults repressed.
In these ways Joyce radicalized literature, so that it would never recover. He reconstituted narrative, both external and internal; he changed our conception of daytime consciousness and of nighttime unconsciousness. He made us reconsider language as a product and prompter of unconscious imaginings. These did not come to him as experiments or as innovations; he did not regard himself as an experimenter. Rather they were solutions to the literary and intellectual problems he set himself.
Yet though his determination to change the way we think about ourselves and others as well as the way we read required the most elaborate methods, Joyce always insisted—to use a Dantean pun—that his means were one thing, his meaning another. Complication was not in itself a good. “Can you not see the simplicity which is at the back of all my disguises?” he asked his wife before they eloped together. He objected to slavishness and ignobility; he thought they were fostered by conventional notions of heroism, which turned people into effigies rather than men and women. He wished them to know themselves as they really were, not as they were taught by church and state to consider themselves to be. He gave dignity to the common life that we all share.
As he wrote to his brother, “Anyway, my opinion is that if I put down a bucket into my own soul’s well, sexual department, I draw up Griffith’s and Ibsen’s and Skeffington’s and Bernard Vaughan’s and St. Aloysius’ and Shelley’s and Renan’s water along with my own. And I am going to do that in my novel (inter alia) and plank the bucket down before the shades and substances above mentioned to see how they like it: and if they don’t like it I can’t help them.” Yet he was not impervious to those other qualities also held in common, moments of exaltation and lyricism as important as they were infrequent.
He made no personal claims. “A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism” was how he described himself to the psychologist Jung. He disclaimed genius, disclaimed imagination, only asserted that when he was writing his mind was as nearly normal as possible. He wished to give his contemporaries, especially his Irish ones, a good look at themselves in his polished looking glass—as he said—but not to destroy them. They must know themselves to become freer and more alive. Shear away adhesion to conventions and shibboleths, and what have we left? More, I think, than Lear’s forked animal. We have the language-making and using capacity, we have affections and disaffections, we have also humor, through which we tumble to our likeness with others. That likeness lies in sad as well as joyful moments. The province of literature, as Joyce and his hero Stephen Dedalus both define it with unaccustomed fervor, is the external affirmation of the spirit of man, suffering and rollicking. We can shed what he called “laughtears” as his writings confront us with this spectacle.