Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 4: Ulysses And Love


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This next post is kind of cribbed from my undergrad thesis, a confusing morass of sophomoric textual analysis having something to do with the “Circe” chapter, the thematic centrality of love, and the reasons why Hans Gabler is a douche.

I called my thesis, seriously, “What’s Love Got Do With It.” I included the period in title, to make it clear that I wasn’t (like in Tina Turner’s hit) rhetorically asking, but that I would be authoritatively telling. What was love but a second hand emotion, indeed.

  • The 1984 Gabler edition caused a teapot tempest for including additions and edits Joyce pencilled in on numerous manuscripts of Ulysses, but that never made it to a final print edition. The most dramatic addition concerned the phrase “the word known to all men.” This phrase recurs in Ulysses 3 times (a very symbolic number…if only we had a symbologist to elucidate it…), but it was not until the Gabler edition that it was explicitly connected to the word “love.” Other words had been postulated before 1984, including “love,” but also “homosexuality” and “omphalos” (as if!). But Gabler added in a line to a passage and Bloom now thinks, “Love, yes. Word known to all men.” The line had come from a note Joyce handwrote on one manuscript. The “omphalos” backers threw a tizz.
  • The addition was superfluous, tacky, and even damaging. Even to a bull-headed undergrad, it’s clear what this book is about. For a writer who refuses to give away what’s most important with Dan-Brown-esque clunky exposition, the addition is not in keeping with the Joycean aesthetic. Joyce is a master at coming at his most important themes indirectly, following Dickinson’s counsel to “tell the truth / but tell it slant.” He wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have made such an explicit assertion of the universality of love, just as he wouldn’t have had  Gabriel Conroy say at the end of “The Dead” say, “Wow, that snow’s linking me the reality of decay and death that constitutes life.”
  • Joyce’s choice of the Odyssey, instead of let’s say, the Iliad, to structure his text is proof of the centrality of love. Where the latter is about crybaby Achilles’ hurt feelings, the Odyssey is about a journey motivated by a love of home and all it entails (wife, child). It’s one of the first examples in antiquity where love is driving the plot.
  • Joyce’s choice to use June 16th, 1904 also underscores the centrality of love. It was the day of Joyce and Nora Barnacle’s second encounter when (pardon this…) she gave him a handjob (even the New York Times says so!). Ellman, although he doesn’t include this detail in his Joyce biography (classy guy that he is), notes that something happened on that day between Joyce and Nora that deepened their relationship. And it was this deepening of the relationship that was meaningful enough for Joyce to choose this date to set his opus. Ellman observes, ‘To set ‘Ulysses’ on this date was Joyce’s most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora… [It was the day upon which] he entered into relation with the world around him and left behind him the loneliness he had felt since his mother’s death.”
  • The plot itself hinges on an act of love, a loving and generous act that also initiates the Joyce-like youth Stephen Dedalus (who is also isolated in cerebral omphalos-gazing and private tragedy) into a relationship with the outside word beyond himself. What is the act? Start reading, folks!

6 Responses

  1. I’m a symbologist. Three is a magic number because it’s the number of handjobs I’ve received in my lifetime.

  2. Thanks, Bob. You teach at Harvard with that mouth?

  3. […] isn’t really about actual blogging as much as it is that “word known to all men” (subtle Ulysses plug!). We’re writing about things we love, and we’re writing about love. So today it’s […]

  4. Ah, you’ve gotta love undergrad paper titles. My personal favorite from my group was “The Purple Bullfinch in the Lilac Tree.”

  5. […] not unanimous. But something’s happening there. And we have the first reference to the “word known to all men” (which will occur 2 more times). Thankfully, Hans Gabler has identified this word as […]

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