James Joyce’s Ulysses: Nihilist Nadir (or) Zenith of ‘Homo Ludens’?

Ulysses impresses and disturbs. With each re-reading, I am impressed by the sheer meticulousness with which James Joyce artfully assembles such a sprawling mass of details. I am disturbed by a case of literary paranoia. If every novel must be both this grand and this banal, then Joyce’s literary genealogy leads ultimately to something like David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King — a similarly grand account of mundane life, but one cut short by the author’s suicide. (Incidentally, Ulysses includes two attempted suicides. Leopold Bloom’s own father succeeds, via drug overdose. When Ruben Dodd’s son survives after jumping in the Liffey, Mr. Dedalus, the father of a young man who doesn’t know what to do in life, promptly remarks that too much was paid to the young Dodd’s rescuer — perhaps the nihilistic nadir of the novel.) However, I actually do not think Joyce intends Mr. Dedalus’s nihilism as the dominant mood of Ulysses. I think Joyce has a more productive lens for life: wordplay as mode of being for homo ludens, the playing, studying human.

I mention homo ludens because, as a comic epic, Ulysses reminds me of John Huizinga’s idea of the same name: “All the terms in this loosely connected group of ideas-play, laughter, folly, wit, jest, joke, the comic, etc.-share the characteristic which we had to attribute to play, namely, that of resisting any attempt to reduce it to other terms. Their rationale and their mutual relationships must lie in a very deep layer of our mental being” (Homo Ludens, p. 6). Huizinga finished his study of play in 1938, but almost two decades prior Joyce had already written a novelistic study of the“very deep” mental layers inside two frustrated men, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, and a woman, Molly Bloom.

The book’s thematic earthiness contrasts with its linguistic complexity. Joyce’s linguistic obsession evinces itself as the two main male characters, despite their differing levels of education, spend an inordinate amount of time lost in the complexities of words. When Stephen Dedalus muses “Heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here” (Joyce 44), he subordinates his experience of reality to the textual tradition he learned in college (and which currently teaches at a local school as underpaid pseudo-professional). The young Oxford graduate regularly loses himself thinking of some Aristotelian definition or Shakespearean phrase. As for Leopold Bloom, the middle-aged, high-school-educated promotions man knows his Shakespeare and the meaning of “metempsychosis.” Like his Ulysses archetype, what Bloom lacks in college education he makes up for in curiosity and common sense. As explained by a man who had been harassing Bloom’s wife,“He’s a cultured allroundman, Bloom is…. There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom” (Joyce 235). Rather than remain at the level of the traditional-literary, however, Joyce incorporates commercial-mundane texts that remain hopelessly distant from any canon. Characters spend time analyzing a Plumtree’s Potted Meat label, a graphic description of pregnancy in The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (235), and a pornographic volume entitled The Sweets of Sin (Joyce 237). As for the Jewish and Christian scriptures, they functions primarily as a shared resource for jokes. The ridiculous and the sublime mingle freely in Joyce’s world of textual allusion.

In terms of technique, Ulysses overwhelms with short bursts of exuberant straightforwardness jumbled within a chaotic universe of veiled multivalence. Nothing remains stable. The moment the reader realizes what Joyce was doing in a given episode, the text has already wrinkled again. For example, when Stephen and Bloom enter “nighttown,” stream of consciousness instantly melts into mock Shakespearean drama (Joyce 428-429). Just when one has identified the mode — prefigured by Stephen’s earlier theorizing on Hamlet (Joyce 185-219) — Joyce unexpectedly plays with the cast of characters. The dramatis personae include a “gong” (435), a “timepiece” (469), the “gasjet,” (510), ‘bracelets,“ a ”horse” (606-07), a golden retriever (601), some “bells,” (470), and a long litany of characters present only in someone’s imagination, such as “the voice of all the damned” (599-600). While the reader is still sorting out the speakers, Joyce begins switching the names of identical characters for rhetorical effect, switching between Leopold’s last name “Bloom” (adopted by his immigrant, suicide father) and Leopold’s ancestral surname “Virag” (512-513).

What makes all of these techniques work, thus avoiding sheer chaos, is that Joyce provides just enough help for the reader to stumble on. Many effects, such as Joyce’s apparently random insertion of song throughout the book, serve a purpose. When Joyce inserts the musical score for the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Joyce 197) into a conversation in a newspaper office, for example, the effect resembles that of cinematic music. As the arch-profane Buck Mulligan’s arrives, the “Gloria” serves the same purpose as does the Star Wars series’ playing the “Imperial March” every time Darth Vader appears on screen. Joyce’s borrowing early cinematic techniques made sense once I learned that Joyce had briefly returned to Dublin with the (doomed) idea of establishing a cinema (Gordon Bowker, James Joyce: A New Biography, p. 185-194). In the newspaper office scene, Mulligan merits the music by transforming into a mock Christ-figure, “nailed like bat to barndoor” but returning to sit “on the right hand of His Own Self but yet shall come in the latter day to doom the quick and dead when all the quick shall be dead already.”

The above passage illustrates my favorite of Joyce’s guiding motifs, that contained in Ulysses’ epic title: the use of high-flown genre conventions to describe the utterly banal or even ridiculous. Once one has identified the literary reference, the situation described becomes semi-intelligible. A similar satire of classical-biblical language occurs when Bloom escapes some drunken nationalist bar-rats, a situation Joyce modeled on Ulysses escaping the Cyclops (Leah C. Flack, Modernism and Homer, pp. 95-123). The final paragraph observes “ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel” (Joyce 345). In other words, like (and yet oh-so-unlike) Elijah’s ascending via whirlwind to the skies, Bloom has climbed some stairs leading to the street.

These trappings of Homeric heroes or biblical prophets contrast jarringly with the mundane lives of Joyce’s often pathetic characters. What makes the whole novel not merely paradoxical but even beautiful is Joyce’s technical ability to deftly illustrate the foolishness of applying traditional sense-making frameworks to the myriad perceptions that bombard every moment. Instead, the characters must try out different ways of interpreting the quotidian. Joyce’s ludic style forces the reader to play along.

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