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!

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”


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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!

Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 2: Ulysses and Exile


“You have to be in exile to understand me”

For “Lost” fans, I’m posting my next set of bullets to the theme of exile in Ulysses. The theme of being home-but-not-at-home resonates with the show in many ways. I’ve saved my comments on the show and Ulysses for the end.

  • Although the story is set in the Dublin, the home of main characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, these two avoid their nominal homes. They are exiles in their own city.
  • Joyce very much felt himself an exile. He wrote a play called “Exiles.” He lived most of his life in self-imposed exile from Ireland, moving to Greece, Zurich, Paris. One reason: He and Nora Barnacle boinked in sin (a big “no” in an oppressively religious country). Another reason: He wrote freely about masturbation and the pleasures of defecation. (More on that later!)
  • Joyce is voicing his own sentiments when Dedalus remarks in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets … Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”
  • For Dedalus in Ulysses, he’s still caught up in nets of nationality, language, and religion…leaving him unsettled in Ulysses. In perhaps the biggest “wah-wah” moment in western literature, after Dedalus’ dramatic resolution to leave Dublin at the end of Portrait to go to Paris to become a famous writer, we find him back in Dublin at the beginning of Ulysses having completely flubbed his escape, slumming in a tower with a bunch of douchebags.
  • For Bloom, he is exiled by his own feelings of impotence (unable to satisfy a wife he loves) and guilt concerning his son’s death (death from illness, Bloom feels his deficient genes or a turn-of-the-century “life-force” were responsible…or something like that).
  • For story purposes, characters in exile is useful. Ernest Renan (I think) once described how feeling unsettled and “not-at-home” (unheimlich) is a moral feeling because it forces you to reconsider your established beliefs and life or whatever. So to have characters feeling “not-at-home,” you have them extra-sensitive to the strangeness of themselves and of their surroundings. Internal monologue, the style for a lot the book, is especially suitable. We’re confronted with their amplified sensitivity and uncertainty.


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As the survivors return to the island toward the end of Season 5, Benjamin Linus is seen reading Ulysses (and the evil-or-good genius that he his, he bought the 1961 Vintage edition). I think it underscores the larger theme of exile and the longing for human connection in the show, but also draws attention to specific aspects of Ben’s character.

Ben Linus (“L.B.”; Leopold Bloom=”B.L.”) is very much a Bloom-like character at this point in the series. He is returning to his home, the island (Ireland’s on an island?). But he’s been ousted as the Others’ leader, and teleported by that steering-wheel-in-the-wall-with-ice-on-other-side thing. Ben, too, will be an exile in his own home. And once he’s on the island, he’s unsettled. He can’t get into shenanigans like the old days. I think it makes him a more likable and likely character, but also a vulnerable one, much more easily manipulated by black smoke and alterna-Lock. He once had the wit and cunning of an Odysseus, but now has the reduced status of Bloom. And like Bloom, he’s also haunted by a child who’s death he feels responsible for. But, sadly, he has no Molly. Or even a Stephen. Or does he? Might we look to Ulysses for clues to Season 6?

Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 1: Ulysses and the Odyssey


I may have oversystematized “Ulysses.”
–J.J. to Samuel Beckett

To help everyone who’s preparing to read Ulysses beginning on June 16th (and even for those few eager beavers who started early), I will tell you about stuff that might help. And I will do so with slick levity, utilizing my marketing career-honed bulletpoint skill, to ensure–respectively–fun and easy-reading.
I’ll contain my first set of bullets to Ulysses’ tangled relationship to the Odyssey
Caveat: I am no expert. So take my information with great suspicion, or lax scrutiny.

  • The Odyssey takes place over years. Ulysses is just one day.
  • The Odyssey follows Odysseus all over the Mediterreanean. Bloom just wanders through Dublin.  
  • Leopold Bloom is a comic Odysseus. He’s an advertising salesman, not an exulted king/military leader. He can’t go home, not because a cyclops or a charybdis or a sea is in the way, but because he knows his wife (Molly Bloom) intends to boink a douchebag (Blazes Boylan). He’s also looked down upon by most his contacts because of their anti-semitism (Bloom is Jewish, furthering his identification with exiles…more on that later). And he has major paranoia and self-consciousness issues concerning his wife’s adultery and his own feelings of impotence. 
  • Leopold Bloom is a real-deal Odysseus. Whatever laughs J.J. intended with Bloom’s homeric parallel, it also amplifies Bloom’s more tragic and heroic characteristics. Much like Odysseus, Bloom is also motivated by the same love of home. But unlike Odysseus, his wife is unfaithful, his child died very young. His return to a loving home is irrecoverably lost to him. He also displays similar heroic qualities such as presence-of-mind and paternal protectiveness, generosity.
  •  The Odyssey is used to structure Ulysses. Although Joyce didn’t explicitly title his chapters based on the Odyssey, he did lay out the Odyssey-system in letters to various critics at the time (each chapter also has its own color, symbol, body organ, style, etc…we’ll get into that later…or not). Now it’s customary to see the book in three parts: Part 1. “The Telemachiad”–The first three chapters focusing mainly on the Telemachus-like character, Stephen Dedalus. Part 2. “The Odyssey”–The next 12 chapters (and the majority of the book) focusing mainly on Bloom’s wanderings, culminating in Bloom’s and Dedalus’ meeting in Dublin’s red-light district. Part 3. “The Nostos”–The last 3 chapters depicting Bloom’s homecoming and the infamous  “Penelope” chapter (an unpunctuated stream of Molly Bloom’s consciousness as she drifts to sleep).
  • Homeric references recur throughout Ulysses, to both comic and dramatic effect. There are cameos from a cyclops, sirens, a Nausicaa-like hottie. If you have the Odyssey fresh in mind, you can have a pretty satisfying time picking out the subtle (and not s0) correspondences.  

I’ll probably add to this list. I just started rereading the Odyssey (this time, the Fagles edition!). 29 days before we start our voyage, just enough time to do your own reading of the Odyssey!