‘And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the holy name of Christ—blasphemies hitherto associated with the most degraded orgies of Satanism and the Black Mass’.
Why We Are No Longer Shocked by “Ulysses”
By Louis Menand
June 16, 2016
An illustration from Tasha Lewis’s “Illustrating James Joyce’s Ulysses in Eight Weeks,” for the chapter called “Sirens.”
Illustration by Tasha Lewis
Not many verbal artifacts are cooler than the first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was published, in Paris, on February 2, 1922, the author’s fortieth birthday. As is standard for books published in France, it is paperbound, an aqua-blue cover with white lettering—the colors of the Greek flag, as Joyce had requested. It somehow looks like a giant lozenge, a blue cough drop for Zeus.
That edition retains the aura of forbidden fruit. Until 1934, it was subject to burning in Britain and the United States. “The most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature,” an Irish critic called it. “All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images, and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the holy name of Christ—blasphemies hitherto associated with the most degraded orgies of Satanism and the Black Mass.”
Today, when no thoughts, images, or pornographic words are “unimaginable” because all are realized on the Internet (imagine the worst thing you can and then Google it), the book has acquired an opposite, and equally defensive, reputation: endless and impenetrable. This is like calling Mt. Everest too high. You have to work to get to the top, but the view is unsurpassed. And there are many commentaries, seasoned Sherpas, to help you over the rougher terrain. You wouldn’t climb a Himalayan mountain without a Sherpa, and there is no shame in reading “Ulysses” with a critical guidebook in hand. The book is (and this is actually one of the least of its remarkable qualities) a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle. You sometimes need help with the definitions, but every piece fits.
The text of the 1922 edition is seven hundred and thirty-two pages, or 262,869 words, which is longer than “Moby-Dick” (206,052 words), but shorter than “Middlemarch” (316,453) and “The Brothers Karamazov (345,592), and much shorter than “War and Peace” (544,406). More than thirty thousand of those words are “unique” (i.e., different from one another), which is a higher number than in all of Shakespeare. And, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, three hundred and thirty-seven words and phrases made their first appearance in print in “Ulysses,” including “dreck,” “bugger off,” “fuck” (as in “fuck it”), “mustard” (the color), “pornosophical” (defined as “of or relating to the philosophy of the brothel”), “schlep,” “smackwarm” (as in “She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh”), and “yogibogeybox.”
The 1922 edition also has about two thousand typos. These crept in partly because Joyce wrote about thirty per cent of the book on the proof sheets, and partly because his French typesetters didn’t read English. Efforts to produce a “correct” text, a few of them sponsored by Joyce himself, invariably spawned new errors, and the whole enterprise was finally abandoned about twenty years ago, shortly before the novel fell into the public domain and multiple editions began flooding the market. Few works of literature have attracted as much intense textual scrutiny as “Ulysses”—Joyce is in a class with Homer and Dante—but the text itself is hopelessly corrupt. In many places, we just don’t know what Joyce intended.
Joyceans don’t celebrate February 2nd, of course. They celebrate June 16th, Bloomsday. This is because the novel is set on June 16, 1904, and that is because that was the day, in a park on the south bank of the River Liffey, in Dublin, when Nora Barnacle put her hand inside Joyce’s trousers and masturbated him. He was twenty-two years old; she was twenty. It was their first date.
So far as I know, it has not been the custom to commemorate the novel by reënactments of its inspiration, but pretty much everything else has been tried, from marathon readings and costume contests to “Leopold Bloom breakfasts” and puppet-theatre adaptations. (Drinking is also regarded as a fit and righteous form of homage.) Enthusiasts were already celebrating Bloomsday in 1924. The first organized celebration took place in Dublin, in 1954 (when the Irish had finally come to terms with the picture of themselves Joyce had painted), and Bloomsday is now observed in more than two hundred cities around the world.
Bloomsday has also been considered an opportune day to honor the book Joyce wrote by publishing a book about Joyce. Tasha Lewis’s “Illustrating James Joyce’s Ulysses in Eight Weeks” is a tribute on an impressive scale. The book is the outcome of an experiment: create an illustration for every page of “Ulysses” (she used the 1984 text, known as the Gabler edition, which has six hundred and forty-four pages), adopting a different visual style for each of the novel’s eighteen chapters, and do it all in eight weeks. (Also: while living in Eastport, Maine, which cannot have made the task simpler, since she uses many different materials.)
I wouldn’t call “Illustrating James Joyce’s Ulysses” a Sherpa; it’s more a travel companion. It helps to know the novel, since the artistic techniques Lewis uses are, in a sense, interpretations, ekphrasis in reverse, efforts to come up with a visual form to correspond to the literary form Joyce uses in each chapter. The artwork is sometimes quite stunning on its own, especially for “Circe” (Bloom and Stephen in the red-light district) and “Oxen of the Sun” (written in styles that imitate the history of the English language). For “Circe,” Lewis used markers, crayon, and chalk, producing rapid childlike drawings that somehow match the phantasmagoria of the episode. For “Oxen,” the illustrations are made with beeswax, embedded with words on scraps of paper and mounted on wood.
Tasha Lewis’s illustration for the chapter titled “Oxen of the Sun.”
Illustration by Tasha Lewis
But the art also operates on a conceptual level. In the eighth chapter, “Scylla and Charybdis,” Stephen Dedalus explains his theory of “Hamlet” to the Dublin literati, an episode that serves the additional function of linking some of the characters and situations in “Ulysses” to characters and situations in Shakespeare’s play. For this chapter, Lewis cut words out of a page of “Hamlet” so that the remaining letters spell out the sentence she has chosen to illustrate, a clever representation of intertextuality.
Lewis’s illustration for the chapter titled
Illustration by Tasha Lewis
In the chapter called “Sirens,” whose motif is music, she recorded herself reading a sentence from the chapter, then cut a shape based on the sound wave of her voice out of a sheet of music. “Wandering Rocks,” a chapter of nineteen sections describing the simultaneous perambulations of various unrelated characters around Dublin, uses images from Google Street View. For “Lestrygonians,” which is about eating, the images are made with food. The offensive message on Mr. Breen’s anonymous postcard, “U.p.: up,” is spelled out in raspberry jam.
One aspect of the book that feels neglected is the aspect that so revolted its early reviewers: the sexual content. As Judge John Woolsey concluded in his famous opinion in United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses,” the case that, in 1933, allowed “Ulysses” to be published in the United States, the sexual descriptions are not there for purposes of arousal. Like the descriptions of characters defecating, urinating, menstruating, burping, farting, and picking their nose, they are there because much of the day is spent doing and thinking about these things.
Joyce made an enormous sacrifice in order to write with complete freedom. He left his family and lived abroad all of his adult life. That we are not outraged by words in a book today is largely because of him. “Ulysses” is the reason we are no longer shocked by “Ulysses.” This was the message of Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book,” published on Bloomsday, 2014. And that should be the real meaning of June 16th.
Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001.Read more »