Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 3: Ulysses and Music

“Lord knows what my prose means. In a word, it is pleasing to the ear…That is enough it seems to me”

–J.J.

Picture 22

This post focuses not so much on what you could know to help you read Ulysses, but more on how you could read it.

There will be a lot of seemingly impenetrable passages throughout the book. My suggestion: appreciate their sound, don’t try to understand their meaning. Although Joyce vowed he could justify the meaning of every single line in all his books, it’s very unwise for you to have he same expectation of understanding.

Instead, appreciate the sound.

And keep turning pages.

Some connections between Joyce, Ulysses and music.

  • Joyce had a great voice. Like Stephen Dedalus, he was an exceptional tenor, had voice teachers, and toyed with the idea of going professional.
  • Although Joyce has a modernist ambition to represent human consciousness, he still has that musician’s desire to make it pleasing to the ear. This makes a big difference. Check out Djuana Barnes’ Nightwood if you want modernism without music. Yech.
  • There are songs throughout the Ulysses. Ben has promised to post his own recordings of each and every one.
  • Joyce wrote using musical structures to structure the text. The “Sirens” chapter is structured is like a fugue
  • Joyce identified Odysseus as an artist in that he is willing to put himself a great risk just to hear a tune. Here’s my favorite Joyce quote recorded in Ellman’s biography: 

The most beautiful, most human traits are contained in the “Odyssey”…Ulysses is a great musician: he wishes to and must listen; he has himself tied to the mast [in order to listen to the beautiful but destructive sirens’ song]. The motif of the artist, who will lay down his life, than renounce his interest.

So when you come across some Joycean muddle, don’t be disheartened. Step back. Read through it not to figure out what’s going on, but to simply appreciate the order of sounds. Whatever self-destruction you risk, preserve your interest…in finishing.

And keep turning them pages.

Odyssey Funmaries Start Thursday!

We Read Page 1 of Ulysses in 24 Days!

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6 Responses

  1. This is the reason I really like Gabler’s corrected edition; he has excised all of Joyce’s difficult passages and replaced them with text from Graham Greene’s novels. Much easier. Hell, I am halfway through Brighton Roc- ,er, Finnegan’s Wake right now!

  2. This does explain Gabler’s controversial decision to insert random pages of sheet music from Belinda Carlisle’s hit “Circle in the Sand” in place of “The Sirens” episode.

  3. And let’s not forget that the Homeric epics were not texts for the Greeks, but songs. ‘Sing’ is usually the first translated word in the poet’s invocation of the muse, with its attendant reference to music. The poems are filled with repetitive phrases and words to help the poet keep the beat. (The one which Miss Carlislie and her Go-Go’s so effortlessly had! )

  4. Great…I see that “Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 4: ‘Ulysses’ and Belinda Carlisle” is completely superfluous. Now I need to work the Bron Bron connection.

  5. Well, I for one am appreciating these entries. Even if I did read them after 25 pages instead of before reading. I was already following your method, so thanks for helping me feel justified in doing so. As a music person, I found this particularly interesting. Can’t wait to read a fugue.

    Re: songs in Ulysses–I don’t know how many of the lyrics in the novel are written by Joyce, how many are folksongs or popular songs… does music for the former exist? Has anyone complied the latter (and former if they exist) anywhere?

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