- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bloomsday will soon be upon us. Falling on June 16, this day is named after Leopold Bloom, a character from James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.” Bloomsday is celebrated in Dublin and in some American cities with large Irish populations. People dress up in Victorian fashion and drive around town in horse-drawn carriages, and celebrities stage various readings from the book. The book seems to foster all the postures and impostures of bohemia.

The academic community uniformly tells us that “Ulysses” is one of the most important books of the 20th century. We are told it is an intelligent book. But who among us has ever had an enlightened and intelligent discussion about the book’s contents? What great quotes from it echo in our memories? Dare we ask who has truly read it?

The book is a boon to Irish tourism and to the huge bureaucracy of academia. Countless thesis papers and literary conferences discuss it endlessly. At the very least, it keeps our educators out of the unemployment lines. But the many theories and interpretations they publish lead to further confusion. Many academics fly to Dublin seeking out certain blue doors mentioned in “Ulysses,” believing they may find some profound key to unlock the book’s meaning — as they wander round in further mazes lost.

Those who seek to solve the riddle of “Ulysses” can do it with one blinding strike of the pike. They can put out the eye of that dumb (250,000 words long) Cyclops of a book by reading a truly intelligent essay by the great writer and artist Wyndham Lewis — “An Analysis Of The Mind James Joyce,” from his book “Time and Western Man.” Lewis, a contemporary of Joyce, picks up the thread to lead us out of the labyrinth of “Ulysses.”

Lewis refreshingly declares that, “there is very little going on in the mind of Mr. James Joyce.” He takes Joyce to task for the so-called “stream of consciousness” technique, Joyce’s method of telling a story from the inside of a character’s mind. The author does not narrate; he takes a vacation, and the reader is on his own to figure out what is going on. The author’s detachment is supposed to encourage a more objective viewpoint. Lewis rather sees it as a “riot of subjectivity” and phantasmagoria.

Lewis believes the stream of consciousness method is an escape from reality and rationality, arguing that the solipsism of the interior monologue is symptomatic of modern man and the decline of Western Civilization. For since the advent of Descartes, modern man turned inward no longer seeking objective truth or reality, but escaping from it into a dream world of subjectivity whose borders are the walls of his own skull.

Many serious readers have found “Ulysses” (not to mention Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”) unintelligible. If you want to read a clear work of genius by Joyce, pick up “The Dubliners,” the last story in the volume entitled “The Dead.” It is his masterpiece, and “Ulysses” was originally intended to be a story in that volume.

As for “Ulysses,” nothing heroic happens in the book. The novel’s very many words are devoted to just one day in Dublin in the year 1904. No epic adventures are encountered. No monsters met. No Circe circumvented. Nothing! Bloom meets Deadalus. Bloom masturbates. Molly adulterates. There seems to be no home for modern man to return to. Joyce’s world is adrift. Lewis equates the book’s method of “primitive unconsciousness” with a jellyfish. Lewis says, “I much prefer the shield of the tortoise, or the rigid stylistic articulations of the grasshopper … The ossature is my favorite part of a living animal, not its intestines.”

Lewis, in his fine novels and essays, advocates encountering the hard reality of life rather than seeking refuge in an unconscious stupor. He stands for reason over the emotive.

Lewis treasures clarity and would agree with Yeats that in our time “confusion fell upon our thought.” This confusion shows itself clearly in all the arts. One humorous example — several years ago, a new edition of “Ulysses” appeared, edited by Danis Rose and published by Picador. The editor sought to clarify the text by making 10,000 edits. But another Joycean cultist, one Fritz Senn, director of the James Joyce Foundation of Zurich, said “that in trying to make the text clearer, Mr. Rose may have subverted elements that brought genius to Ulysses.” He added: “I’ve always enjoyed passages where you couldn’t tell what the author meant.”

Sorry if your Bloomsday has been punctured. But get out the Victorian jaunting car anyway and drive about the town. You are guaranteed a picture in the paper and will appear to be “oh so intelligent! And eclectic.” But will future ages respectfully regard Joyce and other experimenters of literary modernism? The answer is doubtful.

Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Quincy, Mass.

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