Dublin in Hollywood, Florida

By Stuart Hopen

James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of those sacred texts of academic English, and it is not uncommon to find professorial types whose eyes will glaze over in trancelike rapture at the mere mention of the book or its author.  Ask anyone who really knows the book what it is about, and the answer will invariably be:  it is about everything!  You might challenge that answer as unhelpful– they might as well be saying, it is about whatever.  But even when challenged, they will dig in their heels.  It is about everything.

I read Ulysses for the first time when I was in High School.  I had already breezed through Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that noted YA novel which is required reading for aspiring writers with delusions of grandeur and other pretentious teenagers.  I liked it well enough, though not as much as Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or Fantastic Four #1.  Parts of it were boring, and much of its intellectual narcissism was grating.  One got the feeling the thinly disguised author was rejecting the church because he couldn’t believe someone else was the center of the universe.  Later, I was surprised to discover there is considerable debate as to Joyce’s actual stance on religion, and the debate continues to this day.  But I should not have been surprised.  More authors achieve venerated status for a rigorous explication of uncertainty than for supplying clear answers.  And the holy man and the heretic often share similar analytical methods, insights, drives and obsessions.  How many of them have been the same person?

At the age of sixteen, I thought I was ready for Ulysses.  But I wasn’t.  It was like walking into a hail storm of words, only the hail stones were large as bricks and made of lead.  I kept slogging through it, out of adolescent stubbornness.  Here and there I’d catch some glimmer of what was going on.  At first it takes intense concentration to get adjusted to the style, but after a while you start to get the gist of the meaning, or at least you think you do.  But the meaning you think you understand might only be something you have imagined.  Here and there, I’d find gold, diamonds, precious gems and other treasures hailing down among the leaden bricks.  I somehow managed to make it all the way to the final chapter, sometimes referred to as the Penelope chapter, or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.  Hubris had driven me to endure everything up to that point, but the final chapter proved to be something else entirely.  After being beat up and toughened by the bulk of the book, I found the final chapter fairly lucid, even though it was a 46 page torrent of unpunctuated words describing in ordinary, but somehow radiantly poetic terms, the essential stuff of life: love, death, heartbreak, youth and its passing, betrayal, desire, yearning, frustration, disappointment, and acceptance of it all– surely one of the most glorious pieces of prose in the language.  Even at a young age, I could appreciate that.

The second time I read Ulysses was for a college course.  I came to the book in a far more deliberate manner, with appropriate guides and preparation.  I prided myself on having read the book once already, but I really hadn’t.  The book is a kind a literary Everest, and the exercise I had done in high school was akin to letting myself be dragged up the side of the mountain by Sherpas with my eyes half closed.

One of the best descriptions of the novel comes not from a work of literary criticism, but rather from the legal opinion in the case of U.S. v. One Book titled Ulysses, a ruling that freed the book from the charge of obscenity and overcame the ban on its importation:

The book depicts the souls of men and women that are by turns bewildered and keenly apprehensive, sordid and aspiring, ugly and beautiful, hateful and loving. In the end one feels, more than anything else, pity and sorrow for the confusion, misery, and degradation of humanity. Page after page of the book is, or seems to be, incomprehensible…

In writing Ulysses, Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while. Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing. What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.  To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of Ulysses.”

In my college course, we spent about two weeks intensely scrutinizing Ulysses.  I gained a much better appreciation of the work.  At last I could generally see what was going on.  There was surely much to embrace.  Yet as I understood the novel better, I also found much to disdain as well.  There was the same self-centeredness that I found so objectionable in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, except that in Ulysses, the volume of Joyce’s ego had been amplified to near deafening proportions.  Joyce had famously said that it took him seven years to write the novel, and the reader should take as long to read it.  It bothered me that an author would venerate himself so highly as to demand so much from the reader.  As if to gloat over what seems like a busy-work assignment from an unreasonable teacher, Joyce also said, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring immortality.”  I resented—deeply resented—the way the novel had been pedestalled, set up as an example for writers and critics, paving the way for a century of literature that self-righteously reveled in obscurity, poems, novels, and short stories as Easter egg hunts, cross-word puzzles, and trivia contests.

At its worst, Ulysses was the ultimate version of a novel crafted in the hopelessly standardized academic mold, lending itself to hopelessly standardized academic analysis.  The formula is as old as dirt.  The author uses a mythic or folkloric tale as the basis for his or her plot-outline, then establishes conflicts to explicate the point and counterpoints that argue for and against his or her thematic statements, and then the entire construct is decorated with appropriate symbolism.  When one masters the craft of literary criticism, one can append new conclusions.  At my most cynical moments—and there were many—I would refer to my college major as the art of using other people’s constructs to express one’s own ideas.

In their book Interpretations of Life, Will and Ariel Durant wrote: “Joyce did not know when to stop.  He emptied into Ulysses every scrap of history, literature, bawdry, and sacred ritual that had lodged in his merciless memory.  Here, burying brilliants, are teeming mounds of trivia, of bootless bandiage between nobodies, of Latin tags and scholastic shreds, of barbs that have lost their point in the wear of time, and of sly allusions that only dead Dubliners can understand.

Ulysses is a great novel for people who like to play with their books.

The entire action of Ulysses takes place in a single day, June 16, 1904.  All over the world, every year Joyceheads celebrate June 16 as the holiday known as Bloomsday.  As the centennial Bloomsday approached in 2004, I decided to tackle Ulysses again.  This time I approached it in an even more rigorous manner, utilizing many helpful guides, including (without limitation, as we say in contracts) Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: A Study, Anthony Burgess’ “Here Comes Everyman”, Harry Blamire’s “Bloomsday Book”, and a recording of Joseph Campbell’s “Wings of Art”, a series of lectures that approached Joyce as if he were a recognized world religion in one of Campbell’s comparative religion courses.

By 2004, I had mellowed in my attitude toward literary criticism as an academic discipline.  Law school was partly responsible.  Law school, a kind of boot camp for the intellect, teaches the use of rhetoric as weaponry, and it made me miss the study of words for their beauty.  Law school also showed me a very practical application for the skills I had picked up in analyzing stories and discerning their meaning.  I came to appreciate how much the study of literature involved ancillary insights into psychology, history, philosophy, people, social structures; and how it fostered empathy.

Reading Ulysses was still difficult and challenging, still an ascent up a literary Everest, but it was becoming familiar territory.  This time I spent about six months, setting aside all other reading outside of work, taking the novel slowly and deliberately, savoring the climb.

And then it hit me—the most intense reading experience of my entire life.  And it didn’t happen while I was reading, and it wasn’t simply the six months of study and reading that preceded it, but rather it was a culmination of all my encounters with Ulysses.  And it happened in a single instant.  I was jogging in TY Park, not even consciously considering the book, but rather experiencing the shuffling of ordinary unrelated thoughts, the stream of consciousness that is the mind’s ordinary discourse with itself as it interacts with external reality.  I recognized the book in the way I was thinking, and how much information was actually compacted into every day—indeed in every second of life—and how the vast majority of that information resides outside of our immediate apprehension, swirling in obscure and inaccessible subterranean oceans—not only the filed away and often misplaced memories we have accumulated for ourselves, but also the experiences of all our ancestors, manifesting themselves as how we see, breathe, speak, and remember.  Ordinary novels were like trickles of water from that vast ocean, more closely resembling the ordinary, vaguely comprehendable experience of life.  Ulysses was a closer approximation of the complex truth.  All at once I apprehended the intricate structure of Ulysses, the integration of its many parts, how everything in the book related to everything else in the book and how the book related to everything else in the world outside—how the style related to the theme, what the style revealed about the characters, what the use of language revealed about the world, and how the densely layered, almost impassible surface was a compacted mass of information which initially presented as nonsense, but which both concealed and unveiled an almost infinitely complicated elegant design.  All of these connections were like a string of fireworks going off in my mind.  The recreation of a single day in Dublin in 1904 was exploding all around me in Hollywood, Florida.  The book was really about everything, including the moment I was in a century later.   Joyce had written, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

Yeah, it was an epiphany.  It irritated me no end to find myself so cannily manipulated by a writer; to find myself immersed in a Joycean cliché.  In a passage from Stephen Hero, an earlier draft of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, a book that Joyce had tossed into a fireplace, he described, with precision, exactly what I experienced—as if it were a blueprint:

By an epiphany he meant ‘ a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.

… Aquinas says: The three things requisite for beauty are, integrity, a wholeness, symmetry and radiance. Someday I will expand that sentence into a treatise. Consider the performance of your own mind when confronted with any object, hypothetically beautiful. Your mind to apprehend that object divides the entire universe into two parts, the object, and the void which is not the object. To apprehend it you must lift it away from everything else: and then you perceive that it is one integral thing, that is a thing. You recognize its integrity…

-That is the first quality of beauty: it is declared in a simple sudden synthesis of the faculty which apprehends. What then? Analysis then. The mind considers the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and to other objects, examines the balance of its parts, contemplates the form of the object, traverses every cranny of the structure. So the mind receives the impression of the symmetry of the object. The mind recognizes that the object is in the strict sense of the word, a thing, a definitely constituted entity…

-Now for the third quality. For a long time I couldn’t make out what Aquinas meant. He uses a figurative word (a very unusual thing for him) but I have solved it. Claritas is quidditas. After the analysis which discovers the second quality the mind makes the only logically possible synthesis and discovers the third quality. This is the moment which I call epiphany. First we recognize that the object is one integral thing, then we recognize that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.”


From time to time, I consider attempting to read Finnegans Wake.  I might try a page or two.  I never get past page five.  If Ulysses is Mount Everest, Finnegans Wake is surely the Moon.  Some people have been there, but not many.  They actually made a film version of Finnegans Wake, and I have seen the utterly incompressible film, which featured subtitles to convey the language that only dimly resembles English.  I showed the film as part of the film series I chaired when I was an undergraduate.  I mistakenly had mixed up the reels, and showed the final reel immediately following the completion of the first reel.  No one in the audience noticed the error, and I didn’t realize it myself until the closing credits began to play.   I fessed up to my mistake, offered to refund the admission price to anyone who wanted it, and to play the omitted middle reel for anyone curious or stoic enough to continue the experience.  And the first line of the second reel—I swear this is true—was “it doesn’t matter in what order the words come…”