I’m only 50 pages in and I already want to quit. I took this project on because I was certain that in order to exist in the literary world I should have already read what is considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. But now I have two questions for my literary compatriots: have you read this book? And if so, what, if anything, did you gain from its contents?
This book is a mess. And a goofy mess at that.
I know this sounds glib. The way I’m writing reminds me of a jaw-dropping 1-star Amazon review I read for the Bible, where all the user wrote was “meh, not that great.” I like to think someone recommended the Bible saying “If you’re so into literature, why not read the greatest story ever told?” and, taking that literally, the reader read the entire Bible and said “mmmmm, GREATEST story? I’m gonna have to go with Harry Potter.” All of that aside, however, I really don’t know what to hang onto while reading Ulysses. I am, if you’ll excuse the allusion, lost at sea.
the edition I’m reading
To give you some background on what I’ve read and experienced to prepare for this encounter with Joyce:
I’ve read the Odyssey, Iliad, and every extant Greek tragedy multiple times, and I have a degree in Classics and a few years of Ancient Greek under my belt.
I was educated by, like Joyce, the Jesuits.
I’ve read Hamlet
I’ve read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and much of Ulysses (including this section!)
I’ve been drunk on Absinthe
I remember a time in college when I told a friend that if he read Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey he’d have enough information to write about Ulysses. My point being: anyone who can read, can read Ulysses. Then, I went ahead and read half the book, skipped to the last section and wrote my final paper for a class on the last sentence of the book (the one with all the sex). Now, on this go-round with Ulysses, rather than saying something trite like “If I can read it, anyone can” I’d go back and say “before writing anything about Ulysses, you should have already read…”
The Odyssey and Iliad
The entire Bible (with several parts memorized)
random Latin and French
Most of Shakespeare
The History of Ireland and Britain
Everything Aristotle ever wrote
A biography of Joyce
Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Ulysses, at least three times
Only then, will you have even a modicum of working knowledge needed to enjoy this book. I for one have been using “Ulysses, Annotated” by Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman, but the notes range from the non-explanatory esoteric quote to the laughably unknowable:
“Significance Unknown” might as well be every footnote, since few of them have helped my enjoyment of this book. Pete Holmes has a terrific joke about Google and the difference between knowing and not knowing that reminds me of the experience of reading explanatory footnotes of any kind when you’re absolutely unaware of the context:
Every allusion that I do have previous knowledge of, I grasp like a buoy saving me from drowning in oblivion. Then, and this happens five times as often as knowing the allusion, I reach a point in the text where I think “hmmm, I wonder what that means… Good thing I have this reference book that is literally twice as long as the text itself! Oh, look at that. It has something to do with the long History of European Jew-hatred. I’m glad that’s in my brain now. Moving on…”
Much like there is no difference between not knowing where Tom Petty is from, and then instantly knowing, I read and forget Latin phrases and references to St. Thomas Aquinas as if it were textbook knowledge that is wholly uniteresting or merely not pertinent to the text I’m reading EVEN AS I READ A REFERENCE BOOK WHOSE SOLE AIM IS TO EXPLAIN HOW PERTINENT THE REFERENCES ARE!!!!
When I do read something I know about (laissez faire, potato famine) I try to think of what it has to do with Homer, and I rarely, if ever land on anything other than “Oh, like Helen,” or “Yes. I see. Jewish people are the Suitors. The sea is his Mom.” But it doesn’t hit me in the gut or the brain the way a good book should. Most books I read are so engrossing I can’t put them down until it’s time to gift the book to all my acquaintances so they can love it and spread it to their friends and so on and so on, like so many social diseases. I love it, then forget it, then remember it joyously every time someone brings it up. Ulysses is not that kind of book. Ulysses is more like a nightmare I had about sharks years ago that I only vaguely remember every time I swim in the ocean. That’s elusive/scary/confounding/blurred/unmemorable it is to me.
I try to read any book, no matter how much of a beach read, the way I’ve been reading Ulysses. In absolute silence, stone-cold sober, with a notepad next to me. I think Ulysses, however, is something you should read with a beer in your hand, taking a shot for every reference recognized. Then, when you’re significantly sloshed, call a friend and tell him how good Hamlet is even though you haven’t read it in ten years. “Remember the Diet of Worms part? I feel like Joyce really gets into Hamlet’s head.”
That is the way I’ve devised to read the rest of this book: Drunk, interrupting myself whenever I feel like it to talk to someone.
All said and done, what sticks out to me most from this first fifty pages is this: Stephen tells a mock riddle to his students that they audibly, awkwardly try to forget due to the embarrassment that the riddle had no meaningful conclusion. That’s what Ulysses is: a long joke with no punch line. I’m not saying it isn’t smart or funny: it is. I’m all for Buck Mulligan’s mock-Mass as he shaves and shows no regard for Stephen’s mourning. I like ironic and blasphemous texts as much as the next Jesuit-educated man, but the last section where Stephen walks on the beach and thinks?? Why am reading this? At what point do I say “OK, I get it. I appreciate the parallels between Homer and your thoughts, but what is your point??!!”
There is no point. That’s what I believe right now. I am a believer in believing there is no definitive point.
For those of you looking for a synopsis of the first fifty pages:
Buck Mulligan shaves and eats breakfast while making fun of Mass at every turn. There is a lot of talk of drinking pee and inverting the story of Jesus turning water into wine. They go swimming.
Stephen teaches a class on Julius Caesar, then gets paid by an old anti-Semitic guy who Stephen tells “God is just a shout in the street” which I thought was some cool profound original thought, but apparently it’s another reference that went over my head.
Stephen sees a dog and a couple on the beach. He looks at the ocean, picks his nose and wipes it on a rock.
Until next week, I suggest that you don’t start reading Ulysses.
Please feel free to tell me I’m wrong: email@example.com
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