T Nation

James Joyce

OK Nephorm, I have heard the points that you just made in the preemie thread about Joyce’s work, right out of the textbook. That’s nice, BUT…

This is the argument that I was having with the other students who took the trip with me: students of Joyce say that the only way to REALLY understand Joyce is to BE there, to walk the streets of Dublin and see the places he was writing about. Well, I have been there, and done that, at great tedious length. No dice. His writing style --no identifiable grammar, occasional slipping into Latin or Greek, unbelievable amount of unexplained inside references and jokes, seemingly ludicrous statements thrown in at random, wandering narrative – make this book unreadable. Here was the crux of the argument – having read what JOYCE said he was trying to do, make this “masterpiece” conciousness-stream epic journey semi-autobiography – OK. Now read his book and HONESTLY say that you get it, in any way shape or form. You can’t, and if you haven’t LIVED in Dublin of the 1930’s you Oficially Really Really Can’t – most of the book is not-understandable unless you have an idea about at least some of his millions of inside references. So at what point has Joyce left the “Ooh! I’m writing in so many layers and with so much metaphor” level and gone to the “Wow! I’ve just made a book that is incomprehensible to everyone else but myself” level? I don’t think that the book is should be considered a classic simply because the writing is so POOR that we have to take his word for what he was doing.

The students that I lived in Ireland fell in to two groups. The first group did not like Joyce after his earlier (and in my opinion vastly superior) books, and found his writing to be so obscure, confusing, and filled with insider references that it was just a morass of garbage. The other group professed to like Joyce, but when pressed could not not actually come up with any reasons. They too did really not understand it (the plot, the characters, or anything else that can usually be found in a story). They did not get the message that the professors claimed was there, most likely because the only reason that we know what the message was is that Joyce told everybody what the message was supposed to be. When asked about story elements they could give you a nice thumbnail a la the dust jacket summary, which itself is gleaned from the fifteen or sixteen wonderful “normal” passages in the book. Any attempts to explain other parts of the book tend to become aimless, uncomfortable, and to trail off in confusion.

So to my mind there is a direct correlation between Joyce and the many of the “Modern Artists” of the same period – whether or not it took a huge amount of skill and talent to get to the point where some of these works were made, the result is the same for somebody reading/observing – Crap. Why is this considered a classic? I’ll tell you what was classic – at the annual James Joyce festival in Dublin, something like 85% of the people polled admitted that they had never made it past the first fifty pages of Ulysses!

Since there is so much to both sides of the “why” any particular work is considered a classic, this thread should prove entertaining. I have nothing to offer on the Joyce debate, however, I’d like to thow out some pet peeves of mine that run a similar vein.

Can anyone tell my why the hell U2 and David Bowie get play on a Classic Rock station? Not that I don’t enjoy their music but under who’s pot-induced, stuporous watch did this genre become Rock? It certainly would belong in the Classic arena, but Classic Pop - not Classic Rock. Moving on…how can a Texas courthouse beat the David Skaggs Research Center out of the Regional TOBY’s? That building is phenomenal! Moving on…can someone PLEASE shoot Vivienne Westwood, just in both hands so she can’t sketch or pin anymore. Calling that fashion is like calling Modern Art art. And one last parting shot…what the hell is up with that heroin-addicted, waif, crack-whore, bones-sticking-out-all-over look that all models/actresses seem just to be dying to adopt? Why hasn’t that view of female beauty burned itself out yet? How many of you men actually find something attractive about that look? Good Lord, I’m hoping that none of you do (since y’all are here and hopefully more into the fitness look than the crack-whore look) but perhaps you have friends that have explained it to you. None of my guy friends dig it and I just don’t get it, who’re the men keeping that image alive as the ideal of beauty?

Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible. And I don’t for one second buy a blanket statement like “no-one gets it.”

Hahahahaha Redman! You are so right! I have long been of the opinion that Joyce’s Ulyssees was garbage and that he was on crack when he wrote it. As a previous English major, I never was able to read that darn book, nor could I understand why we even had to try. Incomprehensible books should not be passed off as literature simply because the author may have written something of note at some previous time. Essentially Ulyssees sucks!

Give me a real classic beauty like Rachel McLish(sp?) anyday!

The only thing I really have to contribute here is that the “right out of the textbook” remark hurt. No. Really (holds hand over heart). I’ve never read a textbook that discussed Joyce (I’m not a lit or english major), nor had a professor that even mentioned him… but point taken, anyway.


My argument is that it’s a matter of taste. Oftenttimes books become “classics” because their authors have created so many other influential works. I have to say that Being There by Kosinski doesn’t have near the power nor impact of The Painted Bird. Some of Dickens does nothing for me, even though I usually love his work. The rarely performed third act of Man and Superman, (Don Juan in Hell) is clever and witty… but it’s by no means up to Shaw’s usual standard. That’s why it’s rarely performed. There are quite a few Shakespearean plays that are rarely if ever performed anymore. Ask an “expert,” and he’ll tell you that they’re classics anyway.


And if we’re going to rant about classics, let’s rant about some Melville, shall we? Let’s see, 75% of the book is careful scientific description of whales. Really. Entire chapters with neither dialogue nor plot advancement. They used to give some of those chapters to soldiers that needed painful field operations, for their numbing properties. Ah, but let’s throw in some thinly veiled allusions to heaven and hell, and some characters that are obviously representations of holy (and unholy) entities, and you’ve got a classic. And lit profs will argue about it for years.

I like women with a little meat on their bones. It’s all about the curves.

All right Zev, prove me wrong. Tell me all about Ulysses. Pick any two-page passage at random in the book and tell me what’s going on off the top of your head. If you can’t, find somebody who can. I would be very impressed, but of course there would be no way of double- checking based on what was actually WRITTEN. And don’t even bother if you haven’t spent an appreciable amount of time in Dublin.

Here’s the experiment. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore. All of the current ones and most of the past versions have extensive footnotes (yeah, that’s right. Extensive footnotes to explain LITERATURE – like it’s Gibbon). Now, I have discussed the footnotes with the man who footnoted the current version and the man who footnoted the version from the previous publisher in Ireland. Can you believe that their footnotes only agree in the broadest details? Here are two men who have devoted their lives to the study of Joyce, and they rarely agree on a single detail! That says to me that they have only the vaguest notion about Joyce was actually saying.

In our group discussions of the book I thought that it was much more like interpreting un-organized, really bad poetry than classic literature. “Well, I think and feel like this section of gobbledeegook means the following, but the only way I have any real clue about what is supposed to be happening is because I happened to buy James Joyce’s Commentary that discusses his own work in detail…” As I said, I interacted with five professors and writers who were considered the top “Joycean” scholars on the planet. I can tell you that the VAST majority of their meaningful commentary about the greatness of Joyce comes from his earlier work (some of his terrific work such as Dubliners). Four of the five admitted to being somewhat to completely confused by much of Ulysses, and not a single one had anything positive to say about about Joyce’s final “masterpiece”, Finnegan’s Wake. I devoted exhaustive months to cracking this shit, and accomplished almost categorically nothing. I don’t buy the explanation that I am not smart enough or literate or whatever – by any standard you care to use, I think I would hold up just fine. I really like some of his other earlier stuff such as Dubliners and some of his poetry, and I also liked A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man. But Ulysses?

The biggest reason that it is so damn ridiculous to understand is this – I am not James Joyce. If I attempted to take an entire day of my life, and describe everything in utmost detail as it came to my head right onto the paper, and didn’t really try to explain anything, I bet you would have a hard time understanding me. In fact, I bet you wouldn’t understand half of what was going on even if I wrote in plain English. Does that make you stupid? Not at all. Are you going to appreciate my work? Probably not. Because my idea was revolutionary and I’ve had some other work that was fantastic, should my bad Day-in-the-Life-Of be considered a classic? I hope not!

Nephorm, I agree with you almost to the letter (including Melville and Dickens! HAHAAHAA! Right on!). But even if you really HATE a particular Dickens work, you usually have to admit that there are reasonable arguments that disagree with you. A classic to my mind should be a superior achievement of the art-form, and this will always ALWAYS be subjective.

With Joyce’s later stuff, though, that’s not my point. My problem with Ulysses is that having listened to most of the “world-leading Joycean experts” plead their cases, none of them stand up to scrutiny. The arguments as to WHY this is such an accomplishment pale in comparison to the arguments about what the hell is going on in the book. Take any chapter from the book and don’t even tell me why it’s so great. Just tell me what is happening in each paragraph! Having both studied what Joyce said about Ulysses and having read the book several times, I can say with some assurance that your there is an extremely low probability of your interpretation intersecting with what Joyce was trying to say.

Literature minded T-Brethren, come on if you’ve read the whole book and found it to be on the level of good Shakespeare or Moby Dick. Tell me why I’m wrong, back it up with solid arguments (not other-authors’ footnote/introductionary abstraction), and tell me you really get it and I will be a man and admit that I am wrong.

If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy, go over it slowly and carefully. When you are hanging out with some heuty-teuty pseudo-intellectual friends, bring it up angrily. I can almost guarantee you from personal experience that the person who objects to your criticism will not be able to explain the book in anything but the vaguest sense, and you can vent until your head explodes. [Of course, then you’ll just be an anti-Joyce obsessed asshole like myself, but hey, that’s where being physically intimidating really pays off :slight_smile: ]

I believe Joyce to be highly overrated. Shakespeare is the most overrated author of all time, IMO. Of course, he was really a playwright, not a novelist, but I was forced to read his works so many times in English class that I’ll stand by my statement. The finest author produced by the British Isles has to be George Orwell. And he was a true T-man as well, not like that poseur Hemingway.
Nephorn- have u read “Steps” by Kozinski? Pretty intense, and a quick read to boot.

Redman: I certainly don’t profess to be an expert on Joyce. In fact, I’ve only read “Portrait,” and I didn’t even like it. However, I have a bit of a hard time swallowing, as you would have me do, that the entire Western literary establishment is wrong but some dude posting about Joyce on a weightlifting forum is right. Let’s take an analogous situation: you’re on a literary forum discussing Joyce and some dude comes on and claims that every strength coach in the world is deluded; machines, in fact, are vastly superior to free weights and should be used exclusively. Hell, he can even offer consenting opinions of some people he calls “experts”. Do you buy his words at face value? Do you see my point? I, not knowing anything about Joyce, cannot gainsay your specific assertions, but logic and circumstance make me HIGHLY dubious.

I think that there are two things to keep in mind when reading Joyce. One is that, in addition to the Dubliner-insider stuff, he punned in several languages. So there is a passage, for example, that reads “An eye turned black.” Makes no sense at all in context - unless you happen to speak German, which has the phrase “Ein uter bink” (or some such, I’ve heard the phrase but don’t know the spelling) - an idiom meaning “in the blink of an eye”. Then it makes sense in context.


The other is that much of Joyce’s more “difficult” work is largely a response to previous cononical work, an answer to something that was written in Shakespeare or wherever. So if you haven’t read and studied the Canon, you won’t get it.


Not to disparage anyone here on the board, but I think there are very few Americans nowadays who are (a) multilingual enough and (b) well enough grounded in the classics to appreciate Joyce or get what he’s saying. Not a slur on anyone’s intelligence, just the state of the education system today.

To Sonny S: FYI Hemingway was not British, but an American.
To Char-Dawg: I agree that current-day North American students are not “educated” enough to understand Joyce’s Ulyssees. Having agreed upon that, however, why is it that University English majors are forced to read this book and then attempt, in all frustration, to understand it and appreciate it’s “literary” superiority? At least by the time one becomes accustomed to Chaucer and his language, you can get a great read–unlike from Ulyssees.

I’ve always been told that any effort to understand Joyce, if not combined with the heavy use of drugs, will fail.

Hey, Zev. Truth is Truth. It doesn’t matter if it is found in the Koran or in the urinal at Safeway.
Ulysses is garbage, plain and simple. No more crap about how we can’t understand his work. An indication of intelligence is the ability to decide that something is drivel and move on to more productive endeavours. In Ulysses, Joyce was wandering around Dublin making a pseudo-biographical sketch of himself. I think the work was sour and humorless. Hell, he didn’t even like Ireland.
His earlier works were much better and easier to read. Give it a shot. Oh, if it makes you feel better, we could move to a literary site and I can retype this post word for word.

Zev, this is not analagous at all. This is a piece of writing we are talking about. Pick up a copy and try to read it. Very simple. I am not making an abstract claim that can’t be double-checked: you can prove it or disprove it in about fifteen minutes, which is about what it will take for you to get ten pages into it where it starts to lose all direction and structure and you can throw it into the wall. I am willing to make a very strong bet that even after multiple re-reads, even if you are extraordinarily intelligent, that you still have no idea what in the hell is even happening in the book, let alone what are the symbols and meanings. Unlike your analogy, you can very easily prove me wrong (if indeed, I am in the wrong).

I HONESTLY think that people who say they love Ulysses are full of shit, and he received the Nobel Prize for literature as an “Oops!” for not giving him it to him for his earlier good work. Without that prize, this book would have received a big fat “what?”, which is what it still deserves.

Prove me wrong. I will even accept a good reasonable argument about why you liked it.

LightandFluffy: “Truth is truth”? I’m always extremely mistrustful of anyone who thinks they know the Truth (capital ‘T’), especially when the “Truth” they espouse is doxastic and flies in the face of nearly every expert in the world. How can you say “Truth is truth” with regard to the interpretation of literature – no, the interpretation of the QUALITY of literature? That’s like saying, “Chocolate ice cream sucks, that’s the truth, and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong.” Good lord, that kind of thinking is horrifying.

Redman: I agree 100% that there’s no way I could pick up a copy of Ulysses and figure it out, but that proves nothing. I don’t have the backgroud to be able to understand it. You claimed earlier not that your average intelligent-but-uninitiated reader couldn’t get Joyce, but that all the experts in the world can’t even get it (and that therefore it’s crap). THAT is the claim I have trouble with. For what it’s worth, I think my analogy stands. Just as you could point to studies that show free weights are good, you could point to the vast corpus of intelligent criticism that’s been written about Joyce to show that it’s actually worth a damn. You seem to want to be able to decipher the “correct” meaning of every single passage of Ulysses. But there is no decent work of literature where there is consensus about the meaning of every passage therein. That’s why it’s art. Look, you’re obviously a very intelligent and learned fellow, and I’m not going to debate you on this any longer. I just hope you’ll consider that maybe you don’t have all the answers and that, once again, just because you and I (hell, even lots of people) don’t get something doesn’t mean it’s “crap”. Perhaps you could just claim that YOU don’t like Ulysses rather than that it’s crap anyone who says they think they like or understand it is mistaken? I leave you with one of my favorite quotes: “I would give my life for a man who is searching for the truth, but I would gladly kill a man who thinks he has found the truth.”-Bunuel

These are terrible arguments – or they are terrible inasmuch as they are being used to buttress the argument that Ulysses is a classic. What you are saying is that unless you had the same education as Joyce, were raised in a Jesuit boarding school in Dublin and had Greek, Latin, etc. beaten into you by the hated priest, and then lived along the Austrian border with Italy, you cannot comprehend Ulysses.

We return to my original point, only now re-inforced by multi-lingualism: unless you are James Joyce, unless you grew up in Dublin, unless you speak JOYCE’S specific odd mish-mash of European languages, the book will by its very nature go on past you. I don’t equate this with over your head, by the way. The vast majority of his countrymen would not and still don’t have the “education” to understand the book. What I find so outrageous is that they worship him, and take somebody else’s word that this is so great! Joyce loathed his contemporary Irishmen, and moved away when he was a young man, but he’s treated like a national hero!

Why is it then a classic? How is this a pinnacle of writing, if only a handful of people with specific upbringings and experiences can even read it? Like I said, I could write a book with all sorts of inside jokes and references and unless you were my brother or my best friend, you would have no idea what in the hell I was talking about. Maybe that book would be a rich masterpiece for myself and the other three people who would get most of it, but a classic that everyone can read? Come on!

I agree that Ulysses is fairly unreadable to most people, including me, but the trick to reading modernist fiction is not to try to be in the place, like Dublin, but to be in the head of the author. Joyce is a banner British modernist (and he wrote a lot more readable works than Ulysses–try Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Pretty cool). If you look at other mods like Virginia Woolf or D.H. Lawrence, you’ll see the “in-the-moment,” stream of consciousness style that modernists lean on–because all we know in this world is what we know right now. The modernists display a fear the fragmentation of the world as we move into an age of technology that carries us further and further away from our humanity (a perfect quote to illustrate this point comes from Yeats’ “Second Coming”: “Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold.”

What makes a classic? We probably really should be asking “Who” makes the classic. Why is the canon we learn in school so full of white men? Not that I have any problem with white men, but there is a lot of forgotten art out there.

James Joyce was a talented–and prolific-- artist who captured the zeitgeist of an era. Maybe that’s why we put his work on a pedestal. Give me Matt Groening any day–now that’s genius.

Zev, all I want is a creditable argument from ANYONE as to why this is a great work of art. Having read the comments made by “the Western literary establishment”, I am flabbergasted. Vague, bandwaggony, and often totally off the mark. You are being obtuse, but without at least trying to read the book I’m not sure that you can do anything else. You began by insulting my intelligence, then questioned it again by insinuating that my opinion is somehow of less value because it is being posted on a weightlifting forum, and then took my point about the plot being VERY unclear and took it well out of context. My argument, however, is untouched. I am a very not black-and-white-right-or-wrong person at all but Ulysses sets me off.

I did not claim that it is not art, only that is is really poor art, and I resent people telling us that it’s great without any backup, or that it’s great because we don’t get it. OF COURSE WE DON’T GET IT! WE CAN’T, BY THE VERY NATURE OF THE BOOK! Naturally reviewers aren’t going to agree on everything in the book, but I’m talking about differences like one critic saying “Jesus was nailed to the cross and died for our sins” and another saying “Jesus lived a long time and died a happy death at the ripe old age of 144” when reviewing the Bible. Ulysses is that obscure and unreadable.

I would like to know one other classic piece of art (any form) that you have to have a degree in just to get some kind of appreciation for it. In my opinion, much of the work written ABOUT Ulysses has been superior to the book itself.