James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Stuart Gilbert

James Joyce's Ulysses

This is one of two books I read alongside Ulysses, in an attempt to make Ulysses less incomprehensible to me. The attempt was successful, albeit modestly.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a classic commentary that first came out in 1930, not all that long after Ulysses itself was published. One reason to take it especially seriously is that Gilbert knew Joyce, and wrote this in consultation with him. So it’s not just educated guesses about what Joyce might have meant here or there; he was in a position to ask Joyce if he had it right or not.

There are plenty of long quotes from Ulysses in this book. At times it starts to feel like Gilbert is just repeating the novel. If you were required to read Ulysses for some class or something, you could probably just cheat and read this instead, and maybe get 75% or more as much out of it as if you had read what you were supposed to read. Gilbert not only describes and explains the main aspects of the book, but gives you long selections from it verbatim.

I found that this commentary helped me somewhat in understanding the basic structure of Ulysses, like roughly what’s going on in each of the episodes. Sometimes it was a matter of confirming what I had already guessed, and sometimes it provided some guidance when I was completely befuddled. (That’s how obscure Ulysses is. For much of the book I either didn’t know what was going on, or was guessing and not very sure.) Then again, I also found some passages in this book almost as obscure as Joyce’s writing itself.

It doesn’t help—and this is a pet peeve I’ve had since I was a kid—that though the book is in English there are numerous quotations from other languages that are left untranslated. That’s always struck me as a bullshit arrogant attitude of, “Well, if you don’t speak French, German, Spanish, and whatever other language I happen to quote, then this book just isn’t for the likes of you.”

I’ll just say a little more about this book, in some cases overlapping with what I wrote about Ulysses itself.

I still contend that the connections between Ulysses and The Odyssey are pretty darn tenuous. For example, in Gilbert’s discussion of the episode in Ulysses that supposedly corresponds to Odysseus (Ulysses) and his crew landing on an island with the “cave of the winds,” he points out the numerous times Joyce makes some direct or vague, indirect reference to wind. OK, fine. Except in the very next section, Joyce gives an extended description of wind. But I guess that doesn’t count as some sort of symbolic reference to The Odyssey, but is just a non-symbolic description of wind.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, in other words.

It just seems kind of arbitrary to me, like the one section corresponds to the “cave of the winds” and the one after it doesn’t, simply because Joyce and Gilbert say so.

An interesting connection between Ireland and the ancient Greece of The Odyssey that I learned from this book is that evidently there is an Irish legend that their island was settled by the ancient Greeks.

I can’t say I’m impressed with Gilbert (and Joyce, evidently) taking things like occultism and Madame Blavatsky seriously.

Gilbert comments that Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses, a carryover character from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is still mostly autobiographical, at least as far as the younger Joyce, but that the character Leopold Bloom, though based largely on someone Joyce knew, incorporates certain elements of the more mature Joyce.

Gilbert notes that in a sense Ulysses is a hyper-realistic novel. In describing Bloom’s day, he doesn’t do nearly as much picking and choosing as would be conventional. He meticulously records almost every act, every word, every thought, however mundane or unusual, however typical or atypical it would be of the sort of content one would normally expect to find in a novel, however it happens to fit—or not—with whatever points a novelist might want to use this material to make.

It’s almost as if Joyce’s answer to any question about the story—“Why did you include this detail that doesn’t lead to anything?,” “Why did you include gross things like a guy going to the bathroom?,” “Why did you include people using slang and talking in shorthand about local issues that most readers wouldn’t understand?,” etc.—could be simply “Because it happened.”

I’m exaggerating of course. Certainly Joyce is selective to a degree, and includes and excludes things based on his own reasons. But there is a massive amount of detail in the novel that very few writers would have considered including.

Gilbert also, not surprisingly, talks about how unusual Ulysses is in recreating what is going on inside the characters. It’s not simply describing from the outside what they think and feel, but taking you inside to experience it as directly as possible.

Gilbert contends that Joyce did this very accurately, though he notes that there are critics who claim otherwise, who point out that much of what goes on in your consciousness is probably never converted into language at all. Like if you see a dog, you’ll be aware you see it, and seeing it will affect you and your future thoughts, but it’s doubtful you’ll consciously think of a sentence like, “There’s a dog.”

I made the point in my essay on Ulysses that the stream-of-consciousness passages put me in mind of ESP or mind reading. That is, it doesn’t feel like you’re truly on the inside in the sense of experiencing these thoughts the way the thinker would have, but more the way a mind reader might experience picking up confusingly random, contextless thoughts from other people.

This relates to a point I’ve made about certain artsy, independent films that try to take you inside someone’s mind, especially someone with mental illness, to show you how the world would look and sound to such a person, what life would be like to such a person. The reason such films—I don’t know if I want to say “fail,” but at least the reason they—don’t really duplicate for the viewer the character’s mental life is that the person doing the thinking has some degree of control over his consciousness while the viewer is simply along for the ride.

That is, when I’m thinking, I can direct my mind here or there, and I’m not going to confuse myself. I can direct my attention to where I want and need to so that the train of thought makes sense to me. Whereas with a surreal movie, or with Ulysses, it’s the filmmaker or Joyce who is choosing the content and the order of the content in that train of thought, and more often than not I’m going to end up completely lost as a viewer or reader.

I could say more, but really I’m talking more about Ulysses than about James Joyce’s Ulysses. As far as the latter, I’d say it lives up to its billing and it’s worth picking up if you, like me, are not confident of being able to understand Ulysses without plenty of help.

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