The Politics and “Pretentiousness” of Reading James Joyce

Is this modernist tome full of fart jokes and dense allusions worth all the irritating discourse around it? Brianna Rennix says yes.

In The Media, there has been a great deal of ink spilled over the matter of “the left-liberal divide.” What, exactly, is the difference between a “leftist” and a “liberal”? To what extent are these groups ideologically, as opposed to aesthetically, distinct? How far can they trust each other? Are they implacable foes with fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews? Do they have enough shared goals to make political collaboration feasible? Although I can’t presume to answer all of these weighty questions, I can state that Leftists and the Liberals do have at least one area of transatlantic common ground, and that is this: being publicly railroaded for talking too much about Ulysses.

Liberal darling and overgrown Student Council President Pete Buttigieg is, of course, the most notorious Ulysses fan on the modern political stage, having repeatedly commented on his fondness for the novel and put it on his official list of Favorite Books. When asked about Ulysses by an Esquire interviewer, Buttigieg described it as an “extremely relevant” book: “it is a difficult text, but its subject matter couldn’t be more democratic. It’s about a guy going about his day for one day. … You’re in this guy’s head, and you’re kind of seeing life through his eyes, and at the end through his wife’s eyes. That’s how politics ought to be, too.” (Boy, politics would be a rough business if seen through the eyes of candidates’ wives! Relatedly, Beto O’Rourke has also occasionally claimed to be a fan of Ulysses.) The reaction on social media was polarizing: Buttigieg was enthusiastically commended by a number of fans who were excited by the prospect of having an “erudite” president in the White House, and dragged by an equivalent number of people questioning whether Buttigieg, or indeed any other human being, has actually read Ulysses. “No person on earth has ever read Ulysses,” wrote one internet commentator. “James Joyce probably gave it a quick skim.” Others rolled their eyes at Buttigieg’s affinity for “difficult” white male authors, and demanded to know if he had ever read a book by a woman.

But lest you run away with the idea that talking up Ulysses is solely the provenance of Rhodes Scholar resume-padders, the rumpled, jumper-wearing leftist Jeremy Corbyn also recently spoke publically about his love of Joyce’s novel. In 2019, just before Bloomsday (the unofficial Joyce “holiday” on June 16, chosen because all the action of Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904), Corbyn told a Guardian reporter that Ulysses was his favorite novel, recalling that “like many people, at first he found the book ‘incomprehensible’. But then ‘you stop trying to focus on the narrative and start just enjoying the vignettes.’” Like Buttigieg, Corbyn highlighted the book’s down-to-earth quality as a kind of political virtue: “Joyce references and richly describes what’s happening in the street. So somebody is holding forth about a big political issue and then the refuse cart goes by. Whenever there is a big political issue on, I walk around the streets in my area …  Politicians should never forget that people have lives to lead and they often have dreams they don’t talk about.” Corbyn then suggested that ordinary people should try to read and enjoy Ulysses, and not feel intimidated by the book’s reputation: “Read a little bit at a time and think about it and then move on, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t understand it.” As Jacobin catalogued in an article entitled “Ulysses Truthers Are the Latest Threat to Corbyn,” these remarks inspired a slew of attacks from right-wingers and centrists questioning whether Corbyn had “really read” Ulysses, hinting that Corbyn—who did not attend Oxford or Cambridge, nor ultimately finish his college degree at all—couldn’t possibly have done so.

We now see the usual script that unfolds when someone claims to enjoy Ulysses. Interlocutors are skeptical that anyone could have finished, much less really liked, such a long, pretentious book, and they presume that the would-be Ulysses fan must be trying to prove something by making this obviously preposterous claim. The Ulysses fan, anticipating this reaction, then tries for a kind of studied nonchalance, claiming to have found the book hard but, you know, not that hard, insisting that it’s Actually A Totally Normal Book That Anyone Could Read If They Tried. This defensive maneuver is by no means limited to politicians: I once read an article where British comedian Stephen Fry was quoted saying that Ulysses was “less pretentious than a baked bean,” which was then followed by a series of hilariously indignant responses. I also love Ulysses very much, and, when asked to explain why, often find myself emphasizing that there are a lot of fart jokes in it. (This is no lie!—but there are also lengthy parts where characters are walking around thinking about shit like “the ineluctable modality of the visible,” which is less of a crowd-pleaser.) 

Let’s address each of the common claims made about Ulysses. First of all: Is Ulysses a hoax? Is it just a meaningless word-jumble onto which a lot of gullible academics have imagined significances that aren’t there, or (more likely) which they pretend to understand because it makes them look smart? In broad terms, this accusation is, I think, easily disproven. Ulysses, although stylistically unusual, is a book with a linear storyline and thoroughly fleshed-out characters, with backstories, relationships, and meticulously-drawn inner lives. To the extent that people primarily identify “meaning” with things like narrative, character, and dialogue, Ulysses is actually a pretty conventional novel. The first six or so episodes of Ulysses are written in a consistent stream-of-consciousness style, remaining (mostly) inside the mind of one character at a time. The subsequent episodes are a lot weirder: Although the forward momentum of the plot continues, and the characters continue to interact with each other in ways that are consistent with the things you learned about them while inhabiting their minds in the earlier chapters, each successive episode is now its own self-contained, stylistically distinct experiment, parodying various literary genres, or attempting to render musical forms in prose. These experiments are sometimes hilarious, sometimes transcendent, and sometimes (if I’m honest) incredibly tedious. But it’s pretty easy to describe what the book is “about,” what happens in it, who the characters are, what motivates them, and so on. 

That said, you’d certainly be forgiven, if you were someone who only knew Ulysses secondhand, or had opened it up to random page, for thinking that it was just word salad. (James Joyce certainly wasn’t beyond writing such things: His final book, Finnegans Wake, looks something like a 30-dimensional polyglot crossword puzzle, and the commentators who attempt to describe its “plot” in any detail are, uh, really reaching.) Joyce had a lot of what my colleague Lyta Gold would probably describe as “grifter energy.” Throughout his life, he had a knack for attracting and then abusing literary patrons. One of Joyce’s last salvos, before huffily storming off into self-imposed exile from Ireland as a 22-year-old, was to write a satirical verse viciously insulting every single person, famous and obscure, who had ever troubled to lend him money. (This bitch-ass ungrateful poem does contain one couplet, “Where they have crouched and crawled and prayed/I stand, the self-doomed, unafraid,” that is pretty fucking metal if you ignore the surrounding context.)  Joyce was also constantly cooking up weird entrepreneurial schemes, briefly working as a cinema impresario (the cinema folded after a year), as an agent for Irish tweed imports in Italy (he appears to have sold exactly zero yards), and as a fireworks salesman (this venture never progressed beyond Joyce’s imagination). Joyce also worked as a theatre director in Zurich in 1918, putting on, among other things, a production of The Importance of Being Earnest that subsequently devolved into a bitterly acrimonious public lawsuit between Joyce and his principal actor, Henry Carr, who wanted to be reimbursed for a pair of trousers he’d bought for the role. (Joyce counter-sued Carr for libel and the price of five tickets; the ordeal ended when a policeman showed up to confiscate Joyce’s typewriter as collateral for court costs, and was persuaded to leave with half the cash in Joyce’s wallet instead.) Even after the publication of Ulysses cemented Joyce’s public reputation as a literary giant, he often talked about the book as if it were a kind of long con. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” Joyce told one reader, “and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” To another, he declared: “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.”

Irish author James Joyce looks over notes, May 15, 1931. (AP Photo)

So: Ulysses isn’t meaningless, but its own author seems to acknowledge that it is, at least partly, a book designed to frustrate easy comprehension. So what about this other claim that Ulysses fans often make, that it’s really just a Normal Book anyone could read if they tried? This, I think, is also overstating the case a bit. Ulysses is an incredibly dense and bizarre book: Even the more “realist” opening chapters aren’t especially straightforward, as the characters’ minds jump fluidly from one topic to the next, sometimes lighting on fragments of memory whose full context won’t be revealed until later, sometimes on an obscure literary reference, sometimes on a popular ad jingle or long-gone Dublin landmark that no one outside turn-of-the-century Ireland could possibly be expected to recognize. This isn’t to say that you need some specific educational pedigree to understand Ulysses. Plenty of teenagers and adults without a college education have deeply loved the novel, and I’ve certainly met Ivy League types who didn’t understand or like it nearly as well as they pretended. But it’s really not for everyone. For some people, the amount of excruciating mental labor they have to put in to follow the story vastly outweighs any pleasure they might get from Joyce’s prose. I think about how furious I used to get at people who told me I would “enjoy” calculus once I understood it, when even the simplest calculus problem made me feel as if a small, angry rodent were shredding my brain-tissues from the inside. I imagine the experience of trying to read Ulysses feels this way to many people. 

But it’s also worth mentioning that Joyce, for all that he claimed (maybe facetiously, maybe not) to have written his book primarily to confound literature professors, also very much wanted his book to be read and loved by non-academics. (“Well he had a FUNNY WAY OF SHOWING IT, THEN,” you might say, and you’re not wrong.) One of Joyce’s great frustrations was that his wife, Nora Barnacle—a working-class girl who had been a hotel chambermaid before running away to the continent with Joyce—flatly refused to read a word he had written. “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?” she complained to him. An excerpt from a desperate letter that Joyce wrote to Barnacle on this topic, while she was away visiting her family in Ireland, provides a glimpse of the exhausting (if titillating) drama that literally every minute of living with Joyce must have been:

Evidently it is impossible to describe to you the despair I have been in since you left. Yesterday I got a fainting fit in Miss Beach’s shop and she had to run and get me some kind of a drug. Your image is always in my heart. O my dearest, if you would only turn to me even now and read that terrible book [Ulysses] which has now broken the heart in my breast and take me to yourself alone to do with me what you will!

(These histrionics proved completely ineffective: Nora never read Ulysses in her entire life.)

Joyce does perhaps seem to have felt that more intuitive and obvious readings of Ulysses were more valuable than the elaborate puzzle-solving that he prescribed for his devotees. In a letter to a friend, the writer Katherine Mansfield described a dull evening spent watching Joyce and her husband wind each other up into a frenzy about the intricacies of Ulysses, causing her to give up the book as a hopeless enterprise: “I’ve read the Odyssey and am more or less familiar with it but Murry [Mansfield’s husband] and Joyce simply sailed out of my depth. I felt almost stupefied. It’s absolutely impossible that other people should understand Ulysses as Joyce understands it. It’s almost revolting to hear him discuss its difficulties. It contains code words that must be picked up in each paragraph and so on.” Joyce, however, recounting the same evening in a totally unconnected letter to a different correspondent, evidently came away with the exact opposite impression: “Mrs. Murry understood the book better than her husband,” he wrote.

So: If we agree that Ulysses can, in fact, be read—should it be? Is it worth anyone’s time? Why would politicians with worldviews as divergent as the former McKinsey consultant Buttigieg and the longtime Marxist backbencher Corbyn both cite Ulysses as a book with useful lessons for the present political climate? It’s interesting that Buttigieg and Corbyn both see the exact same thing in Ulysses: It is a book about and for the everyman. One of the central characters, an ad salesman named Leopold Bloom, is indeed popularly imagined as an “everyman” character, although this has always puzzled me a little, given that so much of the plot of Ulysses involves Bloom being mocked and ostracized for his Jewish ancestry. Bloom is also a character struggling with a very particular kind of grief—the death of one of his children—and his thoughts are often consumed by a host of unusual, remarkably gender-fluid sexual desires. Bloom is an “everyman” in the sense that he is middle-class, but in most other respects he’s an outsider in the society in which he lives. The other main character, a poet-turned-reluctant-schoolteacher named Stephen Dedalus, is a fairly exact replica of Joyce as a 22-year-old, and spends most of his time thinking about death and Thomas Aquinas, which is perhaps not incredibly relatable to most readers.

Part of the reason, perhaps, that Buttigieg and Corbyn can casually impose the same content-less “people are just people” reading on Ulysses is that it’s not a very political book, really. There’s some ongoing mockery of the idiocies of both empire and nationalism throughout Ulysses, but the book is primarily interested in the relationships between characters on an intimate scale, and doesn’t have much to say about larger social structures. (In fact, one of the few characters who explicitly complains about public health inequities, Stephen Dedalus’s frenemy Buck Mulligan, is portrayed as grandstanding and disingenuous.) The closest thing to a political “moral” that we see is Bloom’s somewhat halting statement while arguing with an anti-Semitic Irish Nationalist in a pub: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life… Love… I mean the opposite of hatred.”

In real life, Joyce had socialist sympathies, although these were of a somewhat hazy kind. As a young man in Ireland, he attended a few socialist meetings, but was generally scornful of all political creeds, treating the socialists, Irish nationalists, and Unionists among his social set with more or less interchangeable irony. Between 1905 and 1907, while living in Europe, he occasionally described himself as a socialist; as his life progressed, his politics, to the extent he had any, seem to have settled into a kind of free-floating pacifist anarchism. “As an artist I am against every state,” he wrote. “Of course I must recognize it, since indeed with all my dealings I come into contact with its institutions. The state is concentric, man eccentric… Naturally I can’t approve of the act of the revolutionary who tosses a bomb in a theatre to destroy the King and his children. On the other hand, have these states behaved any better which have drowned the world in a bloodbath?” We can perhaps see these rather noncommittal politics reflected in Ulysses—but we’re looking for muffled traces of a vague original, so who’s to say. Joyce himself disliked very much the idea that anyone would search for a lesson in Ulysses. “The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book,” he told a friend, “or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.”

I honestly think that both Buttigieg and Corbyn likely cited Ulysses as their favorite book because it is, in fact, their favorite book. It’s not a book that particularly supports or refutes either of their political visions; it’s not the kind of favorite book that makes you seem especially relatable or interesting; the subset of undecided voters who would be driven to the ballot-box by the revelation that a politician enjoys reading dense modernist novels is surely vanishingly small. For all that the book is very long, and for all that Joyce as a human being embodied some of the most irritating and unlikeable characteristics of the auteur—the level of unquestioning support he required from his friends and family, particularly women, was truly unpleasant—Ulysses is extremely loveable to some people. I love Ulysses for its little embedded mysteries, its bad puns, its vivid descriptions of food, its compassionate treatment of human frailty, its astonishingly multi-layered lyricism, and, yes, its fart jokes. I’ve now reread it so many times and in so many places that each episode of the book is overlaid with vague sense-memories from various moments in my life over the past 12 years: Circe lying on my stomach in my sister’s apartment, plastered to the floor with summer sweat; Hades hiding over lunch period in my high school’s library; Wandering Rocks in the waiting room of the hospital where my oldest niece was born; Proteus comfortably drunk in a bathtub in North Carolina; Calypso comfortably drunk in a small restaurant in Rome; Penelope curled up in the window-seat of my drafty freshman dorm room. (Additionally, while perusing photostats of James Joyce’s notebooks at my college library—as one does—I found the word “Rennix” written very clearly in Joyce’s handwriting, so I’m still waiting to be drawn into the rogue wormhole/civilization-destroying time paradox that explains this.)

What does it mean??? WHAT DOES IT MEAN

While I think Ulysses is a Marmite of a book—which some people intensely like and others intensely hate, for perfectly unimpeachable reasons of Taste—I don’t think that it’s easy to tell if you are the sort of person who will like reading it, unless you try! Jeremy Corbyn’s suggested method of dipping into the book a little at a time, and not getting bogged down on stray sentences you don’t immediately understand, is a very good one. I have my own list of additional suggestions for the Ulysses-curious.

Some Ways to Read Ulysses (If You Want To Read Ulysses)

  1. Find a thematic hook: Ulysses contains allusions to 1,000 topics, some of them obscure in the scholarly sense (e.g., random texts you’ve never heard of), others obscure in the sense that 21st-century internet memes will one day be obscure (e.g., contemporary political slogans, advertisements, etc.) But there are some overarching topics that the book returns to frequently, and if you have some background knowledge on any of these things, I think it makes it a lot easier to move through the book. The big one, of course, is the Odyssey: The book is loosely structured around the narrative of the Odyssey, with Leopold Bloom standing in for Odysseus and Stephen Dedalus for Telemachus (although they aren’t direct analogues). Hamlet is, arguably, equally significant as a framing device: Stephen Dedalus envisions himself as a kind of Hamlet-figure and talks about Hamlet fucking constantly; and anxieties about fathers and infidelity pervade Ulysses generally. Background knowledge of Irish history, politics, and mythology will also get you pretty far. I gather that being knowledgeable about the history of music, and opera especially, will also unlock a lot of things, but that’s not something I personally know much about. There are probably other hooks I’m not thinking of! These are just some of the big ones.
  2. Don’t use a “guide to Ulysses: just pull up the Wikipedia summary: There are a number of very thorough Ulysses guidebooks out there that will offer you 1,000 interpretations of every word in the book. It’s not uncommon for college courses that teach Ulysses to assign a guidebook alongside the main text. I think this is a bad idea! Forcing yourself to try to understand every possible allusion significantly diminishes the pleasure of reading (at least for me). The feeling that you’re missing crucial things with every sentence will also start to make you feel discouraged. You don’t have to understand every single reference on the first pass, or ever, to enjoy Ulysses. That said, it’s not cheating to look things up. I think it’s a good idea to pull up a basic plot summary of Ulysses, broken down by episode, that you can refer to when you get lost. Sometimes just knowing the geography of where the hell different characters are in Dublin at any given time will make the story clearer.
  3. If you want, read a biography of James Joyce: Joyce biographies are a kind of extended-universe bonus pack for Ulysses, not unlike reading The Silmarillion as a companion to The Lord of the Rings. I read Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce between my second and third re-readings of Ulysses. (This is the longest and probably most thorough Joyce biography in existence, although I want to flag that Ellmann is a rather sloppy historian and gets various things wrong. Email me if you want to hear my incredibly boring and irrelevant rant about “the Tower Incident.”) Since a lot of the characters in Ulysses are heavily modeled after real people Joyce knew (to the point that Joyce was pathologically afraid of returning to Ireland, for fear that one of his former acquaintances would shoot him dead), knowing the details of Joyce’s life will immediately make Ulysses 1,000 percent clearer. The “death of the author” crowd may not care for this method, preferring to take the book on its own merits, which is fine! But I actually think that knowing about all the petty rivalries and betrayals teeming beneath the surface of Ulysses is super fun. (If you are motivated to devote significant time to Ulysses, a biography is a better companion than a litcrit guidebook, in my opinion.)
  4. Read it the first time fast, then a second time more slowly: Again, getting over-entangled in Ulysses’ strange minutiae on your first pass is a sure way to lose interest. If you have the time and energy, I recommend a breakneck, marathon read of Ulysses, stopping for nothing, ignoring all uncertainty. Then, if you didn’t completely dislike it, reread it more slowly, taking in an episode at a time at whatever pace you like. Once you’re familiar with the book as a whole, a lot of things that seemed confusing before will fall into place naturally; you’ll start to notice new patterns and resonances that weren’t clear the first time, which can be incredibly satisfying.
  5. If you don’t enjoy it, put it down—but maybe pick it up again a few years later? The first time I tried to read Ulysses, I got through the first five chapters. They were—fine. I sort of understood them, but I didn’t really enjoy them, and I wasn’t looking forward to reading more. I abandoned the attempt. Two years later, I tried again, and this time, my brain was on fire with delight and I was unable to put the book down. Who knows why? These things are mysterious. So, keep in mind that Ulysses may deserve a couple chances.
  6. Read with a friend, if you can find a willing victim: I read Ulysses the first time all the way through at the same time that my sister was reading the book for her grad program. Reading simultaneously helped us pace ourselves and gave us lots to talk about. If we were in the same room and working on the same episode, we would read the funny bits out loud to each other. You and your reading buddy can pool your mental resources (you may understand or enjoy different references), talk through confusing parts, and, as needed, rail about the parts you think are stupid or boring. 

Life is certainly far too short to spend much time reading things you hate—but it’s also too short to spend time pretending not to love the things you love. I think we all have a tendency to over-analyze each other’s artistic proclivities, trying to infer deep truths about people’s personalities from their favorite books and films, which then, in turn, encourages a self-conscious curation of the sort of “favorites” that you think will make you seem impressive, or nonthreatening, or seductively inscrutable, or whatever your preferred public angle may be. (This has been going on since the dawn of time, but has perhaps been made worse by the internet age.) Who wants to spend their limited time on earth alternating between painful states of suppressed enthusiasm and feigned interest? I think it’s rather charming that Buttigieg and Corbyn were honest enough (or tone-deaf enough) to admit that they love Ulysses. In the distant socialist future, when the would-be Joyces of the world are freed from their wage-making drudgeries, we might hope for many more such absurd and extravagant books—as well as, for those that want them, plenty of sensible books that people can understand.

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